John Fitzgerald Kennedy

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School years

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was named in honor of her mother’s father, John Francis Fitzgerald, the Boston Mayor who everybody knew as Honey Fitz. When he was three, they moved just outside of Boston. JFK’s father worked very hard at becoming a successful businessman. When he was at the Harvard and had difficult times as an Irish Catholic, he swore to himself he would be a millionaire by the age of thirty-five. JFK’s ancestors had come from Ireland and had been able to fulfill the American dream. His grandfathers both became popular Boston politicians. JFK could enjoy the benefit his ancestors had provided him with. The Kennedy had everything they needed.

The Kennedy children liked sports, liked to play them hard and they enjoyed competition. Their father encouraged the boys because he had very high expectations.  He often said, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’.

JFK went to a boarding school in Choate, Connecticut. He was very popular among the boys. He enjoyed all kinds of sports and reading. He was not the best student, but he was good at history and English literature. Once, his father told him in a letter: ‘Now Jack, I don’t want to give the impression that I am a nagger, for goodness knows I think that is the worse thing any parent can be, and I also feel that you know if I didn’t really feel you had the goods I would be most charitable in my attitude toward your failings. After long experience in sizing up people I definitely know you have the goods and you can go a long way…It is very difficult to make up fundamentals that you have neglected when you were very young, and that is why I am urging you to do the best you can. 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’.

In 1936 went to Harvard, where his elder brother, Joe was already a student. They both played football and unfortunately, JFK injured his spine and this injury haunted him for the rest of his life.

It is interesting that it was Joseph, who announced he would be the first Catholic in the United States to become a president. No one doubted him, and the young John seemed much less ambitious. In 1937 the Kennedy family moved to England because the father had been appointed the United States Ambassador. But the two boys, Joseph and John stayed in the States, at Harvard. Visiting Europe during summer breaks, JFK got interested in world affairs.

The two boys were often informed by their father about the current events in Europe and when the war broke out in 1939, JFK decided to write his thesis on the reasons, whey the UK had been unprepared for the war. It was a brilliant work and later it was published as a book “Why England slept”.

World War II

After graduation both older boys joined the Navy. Joe was a pilot and sent to Europe, while Jack was assigned to the South Pacific as commander of a patrol torpedo boat, the PT-109. In 1943 his boat had been attacked by a Japanese warship and it sank, but he managed to save most of his crew. Back at home he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his leadership and courage. His brother was not so lucky; his plane blew up over the skies of Europe a year later.

Political career begins

JFK’s father always wanted Joseph to have a political career, but his tragic death changed everything. Finally, he convinced John that he should run for a seat in the Massachusetts’ eleventh congressional district. He did, and he won in 1946 as a Democrat.

In 1952 he defeated Henry Cabot Lodge and became a senator.

In 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier, who worked for the Washington Times-Herald.

His spinal problems had come back. After two serious surgeries he was recovering and during that time he wrote a book about US senators who despite public opposition always had voted according to their convictions. For this work called Profiles in Courage in 1957 he earned the Pulitzer Prize.

JFK was becoming more and more popular. Although he lost the vice-presidential nomination in 1956, his overwhelming success in winning the 1958 senatorial seat helped him to focus on the next elections with the intention to run for the presidency.

Presidential years

            Elections

After hard work and lot of traveling across the United States in 1960 the Democrats nominated him as its candidate for President against the Republican vice-president, Richard M. Nixon.

Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan senator ran for the Vice-presidency.

In October there were several General Election Presidential Debates almost weekly. They discussed topics like domestic issues, foreign affairs and were viewed more than 60 million people.

In 1960 JFK won the presidency in a very close race. Kennedy was the youngest man elected President and the first Catholic. Just before his inauguration, his second child, John Jr. (John John), was born.

John F. Kennedy: The 35th President of the United States

John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural speech he addressed the people of the United States to be active citizens: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’ he said. He also addressed other nations to join against the ‘common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.’

The Kennedys moved to the Whitehouse and they all believed that the house should be a place where they could show everyone the values of American history and culture. His wife, Jacqueline changed the furniture and restored all the rooms.

Cultural and social events took place frequently; they invited musicians, artists, actors, sportsmen, writers.

But the Whitehouse was also the home for the Kennedy, their children played on the corridors.

Probably the mixture of history and their vivid family life they lived in the Whitehouse made JFK even more popular during the 1960s.

New Frontier

It was not a place or territory; it was a new way of thinking and even acting. JFK’s new domestic program was known as the New Frontier: tax reforms, more aid to education, medical care for the elderly as Social Security, civil rights, space program.

He created Peace Corps, where Americans can volunteer and help in areas such as education, farming, health care, and construction. Encouraging the ‘race for space’ (Gagarin, a Russian had been in space in 1961), he was the first president to ask the Congress for more than 22 million dollars to create the Project Apollo. JFK was determined to send man to the Moon in 10 years.

            Dealing with racism

Although in 1954 the US Supreme Court did ban the segregation in public schools, still, especially in the southern states, not many obeyed this law. This occurred on buses, restaurants, and any kind of public places as well. JFK first did not believe that public protests would do any good for the cause, as it would only anger white people, but finally he was convinced that he had to do something with racism as a president.

He supported civil rights movements and in the June of 1963 he asked Americans in a TV speech to end racism. ‘One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free,’ he said. ‘This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds… [and] on the principle that all men are created equal.’

Tensions and conflicts with the Soviet Union

The two powers distrusted each other and spent huge amount of money on nuclear weapons.

The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba by CIA-supported Cuban exiles. Its aims were to drop Fidel Castro from power. Although the invasion was planned under the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy approved it, and later was criticized a lot. The Cubans easily defeated the invaders.

In June, 1961, JFK met in Vienna with Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Because of their disagreement on the future of Berlin Khrushchev threatened the United States that the USSR would have a peace treaty with East Germany and this could end Western access to West Berlin. During this period the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall. For people of the West, the Wall became a symbol of communism. In 1963 JFK traveled to West Berlin and made his famous speech near the wall expressing his hope that the wall would come down one day:

While he was speaking, he let people decide about their own opinion of Communism; in his smartly written speech he did leave the question opened:

‘There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world.

Let them come to Berlin.

There are some who say — There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future.

Let them come to Berlin.

And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists.

Let them come to Berlin.

And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress.

Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.’

But he never gave up on his own commitment to democracy and his conviction that the wall should be demolished:

‘…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. I want to say on behalf of my countrymen who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride, that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope, and the determination of the city of West Berlin.

While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system — for all the world to see — we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together…[…]

All — All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Bay of Pigs crises in 1962

In the October of 1962 an American spy plane took pictures of Russian built nuclear missile launchers in Cuba. As it was too close to Florida, JFK faced a very serious situation. He was sure he did not want a war with the Soviets, but the closeness of the missiles made him decide about a blockade.

Advised by military personnel he ordered naval ships to from a blockade around Cuba in order to prevent Soviet ships to enter Cuban shores. The whole world was watching as it was a very dangerous thirteen days. This crisis could lead to a nuclear war. Many Americans started to buy so called atomic bomb shelters; it led to some kind of hysteria even. But the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to remove the nuclear missile launchers. In exchange, the United States guaranteed that they would not try to invade Cuba.

Coming out as a prominent leader from a no-win situation JFK was praised all over the States and became even more popular.

Furthermore, on October 7, 1963 JFK signs a treaty with the Soviet Union and the UK in which they prohibited the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.

South East Asia

In the region there was a growing threat of communist movements. Supporting the South Vietnamese government, but also having troubles with its current despotic leader, a US-supported coup took place in October of 1963, and the South Vietnamese Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in it.

The following weak Saigon governments led to the major ground wars the LBJ administration opened in 1965 in order to prevent North Vietnamese communist forces to gain control of the whole country.

Assassination

On November 21, 1963 JFK went to Texas to give speeches. The next day, on November 22 as his car had been going slowly in Dallas, shots were heard. JFK was seriously wounded and died in hospital a short time later.

Just a few hours after the assassination police arrested a man called Lee Harvey Oswald. He was shot by another man, Jack Ruby on November 24. Thus, the only man, Oswald who could have given information on the tragic event had been silenced forever.

US administration organized a commission (Warren Commission) to investigate the assassination. Their report was full of questionable evidence and testimonies therefore in 1968 the district attorney of New Orleans, Jim Garrison charged a man called Clay Shaw and tried to connect him to the assassination and also to the CIA. In his best-selling book, ‘On the Trail of the Assassins’ he drew a possible ‘coup d’état’, in which he tries to prove that JFK had not been killed by a lone assassin but by a well-organized CIA black operation.

Many questions are still unanswered.

His Legacy

His death caused shock and grief among Americans. On his funeral hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington and millions watched it on television. He is remembered as the young, courageous president who stood still when crises occurred, as the missiles in Cuba. He also made remarkable progress in fighting racism. He may have not been the classical role figure of the family man, as there were rumors about his affairs with other women, but he is still admired in the United States. He smartly used mass media as television to address the whole nation. Also, his famous and brilliantly written speeches made him a well-respected figure in the history of the 20th century.

He had been president only for 3 years; still he is the best-known American president all over the world.

Sources:

Website of the Whitehouse

The American Presidency Project website

Johnson, Paul:  A History of the American People HarperCollins Publishers

Garrison, Jim: On the trail of the Assassins