John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (1917-1963), 35th president of the United States. The youngest ever elected to the presidency and the first of the Roman Catholic faith, John F. Kennedy won the election of November 1960 by a razor-thin margin, but after taking office he received the support of most Americans. They admired his winning personality, his lively family, his intelligence, and his tireless energy, and they respected his courage in time of decision.

During his relatively brief term of office--less than three years--President Kennedy dealt with severe challenges in Cuba, Berlin, and elsewhere. A nuclear test ban treaty in 1963 brought about a relaxation in cold war tensions following a time of severe confrontation early in the administration. Domestically, much of the Kennedy program was unfulfilled, brought to fruition only in the Johnson administration. The U.S. space program, however, surged ahead during the Kennedy administration, scoring dramatic gains that benefited American prestige worldwide.

An assassin's bullet cut short Kennedy's term as president. On Nov. 22, 1963, the young president was shot to death while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. As the nation joined in mourning, dignitaries from around the world gathered at his funeral in Washington to pay their respects. Mayor Willy Brandt of West Berlin expressed the world's sense of loss when he said that 'a flame went out for all those who had hoped for a just peace and a better life.'

Early Years

Kennedy was descended from Irish forebears who immigrated to Boston. His grandfather, Patrick J. Kennedy, started as a saloonkeeper and became a Boston political leader. His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, graduated from Harvard, became a bank president at 25, and married the daughter of John Francis ('Honey Fitz') Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston.

John was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Mass., the second of nine children. As an infant he lived in a comfortable but modest frame house in that suburb of Boston. As the family grew and the father's fortune increased, the Kennedys moved to larger, more impressive homes, first in Brookline, then in suburbs of New York City. John had a happy childhood, full of family games and sports. He attended private elementary schools, none of them parochial. He later spent a year at Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., where he was taught by Roman Catholic laymen, and four years at Choate School in Wallingford, Conn.

John seemed to grow up in the shadow of his older brother Joseph, who dominated family competitions and was a better student in school. Encouraged by his father to take part in school athletics, John, wiry but thin, played in half a dozen sports without making the varsity. When John graduated from Choate in 1935, he ranked only 64th in a class of 112. His classmates, however, voted him 'most likely to succeed.'

John spent the summer of 1935 studying at the London School of Economics. He then entered Princeton University but was forced to leave during the Christmas recess of his freshman year because of an attack of jaundice. In the fall of 1936 he enrolled at Harvard University, where he devoted himself strenuously but not very successfully to athletics and injured his back playing football. During his first two years at Harvard he continued to be an easygoing student; then his work improved.

Two trips to Europe, in 1937 and 1939, gave Kennedy the opportunity to observe international power politics at first hand. On his second trip, when his father was serving as ambassador to Britain, he stayed at American embassies, talking to newspapermen, political leaders, and diplomats. Returning to Harvard for his senior year, he wrote an honors thesis analyzing the British policies that led to the Munich Pact of 1938. This thesis, published in 1940 under the title Why England Slept, was well received by reviewers, who praised the 23-year-old author for his dispassionate judgments. Kennedy graduated cum laude from Harvard in June 1940. He then spent some months in 1940 and 1941 studying at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business in California and touring a number of the countries of Latin America.

World War II

Kennedy strongly favored rearmament for the United States, and in the spring of 1941 he volunteered for the Army, but was rejected because of his weak back. During the summer he took strengthening exercises, and in September he was accepted by the Navy. In March 1943, as a lieutenant (junior grade), he took command of a PT (torpedo) boat in the Solomon Islands. While his boat was cruising west of New Georgia on the night of August 2, it was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy was thrown across the deck onto his back, but he rallied the survivors and managed to get them to an island. He himself towed a wounded man three miles through the seas. For several days he risked his life repeatedly, swimming into dangerous waters hoping to find a rescue ship. He finally encountered two friendly islanders and sent them for aid with a message that he carved on a coconut. He received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, but his earlier back injury had been aggravated, and he contracted malaria. After an operation on his back, he was discharged early in 1945.

Political Career

Faced with the problem of choosing a career, Kennedy worked for several months in 1945 as a reporter for the Hearst newspapers, covering the conference at San Francisco that established the United Nations. There he noted the 'belligerent Russian attitude.' Ultimately he decided on a political career and returned to Boston. In so choosing, he took the place of his brother Joseph, who had seemed destined for politics but had been killed in World War II.

His opportunity came when James M. Curley vacated his seat in the House of Representatives from the overwhelmingly Democratic 11th Massachusetts Congressional District to become mayor of Boston. Early in 1946, Kennedy announced his candidacy in the June Democratic primary. He began an elaborate and aggressive campaign against nine other candidates. One of his rivals called him 'the poor little rich kid,' and others referred to him as an outsider, a carpetbagger. But he campaigned ceaselessly, depending on a strong organization of personal followers rather than on regular Democratic party workers. In the primary he nearly doubled the vote of his nearest opponent, and his election in November was little more than a formality.

As a representative--he was reelected in 1948 and 1950--Kennedy had a mixed voting record, diverging sharply at some points from the policies of President Harry Truman and the Democratic party. On domestic affairs he followed the administration's Fair Deal policies in most matters, fighting for slum clearance and low-cost public housing. As a member of the Education and Labor Committee, he wrote his own temperate report concurring with the minority opposing the Taft-Hartley bill. On foreign affairs he backed the Truman Doctrine, but was critical of the president for not stemming the advance of communism in China.

U.S. Senate

In April 1952, Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Senate against the Republican incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Again depending on his own organization, he based his campaign on the slogan 'Kennedy will do more for Massachusetts.' In November, while the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was carrying the state for president, Kennedy defeated Lodge by more than 70,000 votes.

As senator, Kennedy concentrated at first on making good his campaign slogan. At the end of two years he could list a wide array of legislation he had obtained for Massachusetts businessmen. He expanded his program to cover all of New England and succeeded in uniting the senators from the area into an effective voting bloc. At the same time, he supported the St. Lawrence Seaway and the extension of the reciprocal trade program. On the troublesome question of the policies of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, who was admired by many of Kennedy's constituents, he took a middle position. To one McCarthyite he wrote: 'I have always believed that we must be alert to the menace of communism within our country as well as its advances on the international front. In so doing, however, we must be careful we maintain our traditional concern that in punishing the guilty we protect the innocent.' In December 1954, when the Senate voted censure against McCarthy, 67 to 22, Kennedy was ill in a hospital and did not vote; however, he reportedly had planned to speak and vote for censure.

Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier on Sept. 12, 1953. The couple had two children who survived infancy--Caroline Bouvier, born on Nov. 27, 1957, and John, Jr., born on Nov. 25, 1960. A third child, Patrick Bouvier, died two days after his birth on Aug. 7, 1963.

Not long after their marriage, Mrs. Kennedy had to help her husband through a serious illness. Increasingly troubled by his injured back, he underwent spinal operations in October 1954 and February 1955. During his long convalescence he occupied himself by writing a study of notable acts of political courage by eight United States senators. This book, published in 1956 as Profiles in Courage, received the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957.

When, in May 1955, Kennedy returned to the Senate after his illness, he shifted his attention more and more toward national and international issues. He had previously told a magazine writer, with reference to critics who complained that he was not a 'true liberal,' that 'I'd be very happy to tell them that I'm not a liberal at all.' But by 1957 he was taking mildly liberal positions on the difficult question of civil liberties. He helped arrange a compromise between Northern and Southern positions on the civil rights bill passed in 1957. In Jackson, Miss., he frankly asserted that he accepted the Supreme Court decision of 1954 on desegregation of the nation's public schools.

In 1957 also, Kennedy obtained membership on the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where he supported most of the Democratic policies. His emphasis shifted from military programs to economic aid to underdeveloped areas. In 1958 and 1959 he devoted much time and energy to labor reform legislation (soon after becoming a senator he had been appointed to the Labor and Public Welfare Committee), but in the end he was forced to accept the Landrum-Griffin bill, which incorporated some of his reforms but was less favorable to labor.

Campaign for President

Beginning in 1956, Kennedy aimed toward higher office. In the Democratic Convention of that year he almost wrested the vice-presidential nomination from Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. After the election he began speaking frequently throughout the country, and many writers began to speculate whether a Roman Catholic could be elected president.

In 1958, Kennedy was reelected to the Senate by a margin of more than 874,000 votes. This firmly established him as a leading contender for the presidential nomination. In January 1960 he formally announced his candidacy. Backed again by a formidable personal organization, he defeated Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr., of Minnesota and other rivals in several hard-fought primaries. At the convention he marshaled his forces so skillfully against those of Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and Adlai E. Stevenson that he was nominated on the first ballot. Johnson became his running mate.

In accepting the nomination, Kennedy declared that 'We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier,' thus giving a name to his program. In the campaign against his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, he took positions that, while middle-of-the-road, were somewhat more liberal than those held by Nixon, and defended them vigorously in an exhaustive campaign across the nation.

When he appeared in a unique series of television debates with Vice President Nixon, his mature appearance undercut Republican arguments that he was too young and inexperienced for such high office. Although public opinion polls predicted his victory, he was elected president by a margin of only 119,450 votes out of the nearly 69,000,000 that were cast. His electoral vote was 303 to 219 for Nixon.

Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to become president of the United States and, at the age of 43, the youngest man ever elected to that office, though Theodore Roosevelt was some months younger when he took office after the death of William McKinley in 1901. Kennedy's Catholicism may have helped him in the Eastern industrial states, and he won most of the Demo cratic South despite it, but the religious question apparently hurt him in the Middle West and West.


Kennedy was inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, 1961. He devoted his entire inaugural address to international affairs, calling on his fellow citizens 'to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.' His address was widely acclaimed as a classic political expression.

Kennedy chose his cabinet to represent the country's main sections and interests. To reassure business, a Republican, C. Douglas Dillon, was appointed secretary of the treasury, and another Republican, Robert S. McNamara, who had been president of the Ford Motor Company, was named secretary of defense. Dean Rusk, who had headed the Rockefeller Foundation, became the new secretary of state, and Adlai Stevenson was appointed ambassador to the United Nations. Robert Francis Kennedy, the president's brother, became attorney general.

Prior to the election, Kennedy had planned to present to Congress a sweeping legislative program similar to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 's first '100 days.' The closeness of the election caused him to proceed more cautiously, but in his first months in office he sent Congress a record number of messages proposing broad programs to promote more rapid economic growth, rehabilitate depressed areas, improve urban housing and development, reform tax legislation, revise the farm program, conserve and develop natural resources, aid education, and provide better medical care for the aged. In effect, he was establishing his long-range goals. At the time he obtained little more from Congress than relatively short-range legislation to help pull the nation out of a mild recession in 1961.

The Bay of Pigs

The first international bombshell of Kennedy's administration exploded in April 1961, when a force of anti-Castro Cubans, trained and directed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, failed in an attempt to establish a beachhead in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion had been planned before Kennedy took office, and he allowed it to proceed with important modifications limiting the degree of American support. The Cuban debacle, for which Kennedy accepted 'sole responsibility,' was a stunning setback for the new administration. It resulted in criticism and anti-American feeling abroad. However, in the United States, leaders of both parties rallied behind the president.

The Berlin Issue

From the late spring of 1961 until the late fall of 1962, President Kennedy engaged in a great test of strength with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The confrontation began on the question of Berlin, when in June 1961 the president spent two days in Vienna discussing that major issue with the Soviet leader. For some time Khrushchev had threatened to sign a peace treaty with the East German government that would give it control over access routes to Berlin. Kennedy wanted to make sure that Khrushchev 'understood our strength and determination.' The talks, Kennedy reported upon his return to the United States, were somber: 'I made it clear to Mr. Khrushchev that the security of Western Europe, and therefore our own security, are deeply involved in our presence and our access rights to West Berlin; that those rights are based on law and not on sufferance; and that we are determined to maintain those rights at any risk and thus meet our obligation to the people of West Berlin, and their right to choose their own future.'

In the months that followed, the crisis over Berlin was intensified by Communist construction of a wall that prevented East Berliners from escaping to the West. Kennedy responded by obtaining large additional sums for armaments and ordering many National Guard and reserve units of the armed forces into active service. However, Khrushchev did not sign a peace treaty with East Germany, so the crisis subsided.

The Cuban Crisis

Cuba served as the stage for an even graver international crisis--one of the severest threats to peace since the Korean War. On Oct. 16, 1962, the president was shown aerial reconnaissance photographs of Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba. From these bases a nuclear attack could be launched on much of the United States and the Western Hemisphere. In a dramatic radio and television address on October 22, President Kennedy announced a United States naval and air quarantine on all offensive weapons bound for Cuba. This meant that U.S. warships would halt and search Russian ships.

Kennedy expressed American determination in these words: 'This secret, swift and extraordinary build-up of Communist missiles--in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere--is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo which cannot be accepted by this country, if our courage and our commitments are ever again to be trusted by either friend or foe.'

The United States put the quarantine into effect and kept its armed forces at combat readiness. For an anxious week the world waited as the threat of thermonuclear war cast its shadow. The tension was relieved somewhat when arms-carrying ships bound for Cuba returned to Soviet ports. 'We're eyeball to eyeball,' Secretary of State Rusk said, 'and I think the other fellow just blinked.' Then, on October 28, after an exchange of notes between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, it was announced that the Soviet Union would dismantle and withdraw its offensive weapons in Cuba. On this basis the United States ended its quarantine, and the crisis came to an end. During the missile confrontation, Kennedy received widespread international support, and later was credited with having achieved a turning point favorable to the West in the cold war.

Nuclear Test Ban

In another area of international tension, Kennedy responded firmly to the Soviet Union's sudden resumption of nuclear tests in September 1961. He urged Khrushchev to join with the United States and Britain in an agreement not to conduct tests in the atmosphere. When Khrushchev did not accept the offer, Kennedy ordered the resumption of underground tests, and in March 1962, after extensive study of possible Soviet advances, reluctantly ordered new atmospheric tests.

The question of nuclear testing, however, furnished President Kennedy with his greatest success in easing cold war tensions. On Aug. 5, 1963, after lengthy negotiations, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union signed a limited nuclear test-ban treaty, forbidding atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. This treaty, which subsequently was signed by most other nations of the world, marked the first limitation of arms expansion since the cold war began. In October, the same three powers agreed to refrain from placing nuclear weapons in outer space. Thus Kennedy's willingness to negotiate with the Soviets--from a position of strength--began to return dividends in the struggle between East and West.

Foreign Aid

The failure of the Cuban invasion in 1961 focused Kennedy's attention on the necessity of meeting the needs of Latin American nations, whose economic distress made them vulnerable to Castro-type revolutions. He proposed that these republics join with the United States in a ten-year plan for developing the Americas--'a vast co-operative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose, to satisfy the basic needs of the American people for homes, work and land, health and schools.' The charter for this program, known as the Alliance for Progress, was signed in August 1961 by the United States and all Latin American countries except Cuba. The Alliance, while facing many obstacles, received the enthusiastic support of the vast majority of Latin American peoples, and when the Kennedys visited Colombia and Venezuela in 1961 and Mexico in 1962, they were greeted with hearty acclaim.

In Southeast Asia, the perceived threat of Chinese Communist domination forced the president to strengthen the defense of that area. In Laos and South Vietnam, where Communist guerrilla warfare continued unabated, he modified defense policies to place more emphasis on meeting the jungle warfare tactics of the enemy. Although small numbers of U.S. military advisers had been sent to South Vietnam for antiguerrilla operations since 1954, they increased in numbers under the Kennedy administration from about 700 to more than 15,000.

When the Communist Chinese invaded the northern border of India in 1962, Kennedy authorized the immediate air-lifting of arms to India. Kennedy felt, however, that more than force was needed to meet the Communist threat in Asia, and he directed reshaping of economic aid to make it more effective.

On a global scale, Kennedy established the Peace Corps in March 1961. Through this program, headed by his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, many young Americans were encouraged to contribute their skills to 'sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.'

Relations with Europe

Kennedy emphasized that the United States must act in cooperation with a strong and united western Europe in order to meet the Communist threat. In anticipation of the growth of the European Common Market, he obtained from Congress the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which granted him authority to bargain by offering drastic tariff reductions. 'Acting on our own, by ourselves, we cannot establish justice throughout the world,' he asserted on July 4, 1962. 'But joined with other free nations, we can assist the developing nations to throw off the yoke of poverty.'

Kennedy's plans for a strong, united Europe working in cooperation with the United States were largely frustrated by French President Charles de Gaulle. In defense programs, de Gaulle increasingly assumed positions independent of the United States, threatening the cohesiveness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the economic sphere, de Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry into the Common Market, wrecking prospects for freer trade among the member nations of the Western alliance.

National Issues

Kennedy's domestic program remained largely in the planning stage throughout his administration. Congress did not heed his urging for programs of tax reform and aid to education, and it killed his proposals for a department of urban affairs and for medical aid for the aged. In January 1963 he proposed a reduction in income taxes as a means of stimulating economic growth. Congress, however, delayed passage of the tax cut until February 1964, three months after his death.

Kennedy's action on a proposed steel price increase in 1962 resulted in one of the most controversial domestic issues of his administration. In March of that year he persuaded the United Steel Workers to accept a contract he hailed as 'noninflationary.' A few days later, the United States Steel Corporation announced an increase of 3.5% in its prices, and most other steel companies did likewise. In the three days that followed, Kennedy brought such intense pressure to bear that the companies rescinded the increases. But in the aftermath, businessmen widely criticized the president as being hostile to them.

Civil rights was the most difficult national problem to face President Kennedy. Throughout his political career he had taken a moderate stand on civil rights, although his administration gave strong legal support to the foes of segregation. In June 1963, as pressure for racial equality mounted, the president addressed the nation, declaring that the United States faced a 'moral crisis' as a result of discontent among blacks. Later that month he sent a special message to Congress, calling for extensive civil rights legislation. As with the tax cut, Congress delayed action and did not pass a comprehensive civil rights bill until the summer of 1964, after the president's death.

Assassination and Burial

In November 1963, President Kennedy journeyed to Texas for a speechmaking tour. In Dallas on November 22, he and his wife were cheered enthusiastically as their open car passed through the streets. Suddenly, at 12:30 in the afternoon, an assassin fired several shots, striking the president twice, in the base of the neck and the head, and seriously wounding John Connally, the governor of Texas, who was riding with the Kennedys. The president was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about a half hour later. Within two hours, Vice President Johnson took the oath as president.

On November 24, amid national and worldwide mourning, the president's body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The next day, leaders of 92 nations attended the state funeral, and a million persons lined the route as a horse-drawn caisson bore the body to St. Matthew's Cathedral for a requiem Mass. While millions of Americans watched the ceremonies on television, the president was buried on a slope in Arlington National Cemetery. There an eternal flame, lighted by his widow, marks the grave.

On the day of the assassination, the police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old ex-Marine, for the president's murder. Oswald, who had lived for a time in the Soviet Union, killed Dallas Policeman J. D. Tippit while resisting arrest. Two days later, in the basement of the Dallas police station, Oswald himself was fatally shot by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner.

On November 29, President Johnson appointed a seven-member commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to conduct a thorough investigation of the assassination and report to the nation. The commission's report, made public on Sept. 27, 1964, held that Oswald fired the shots that killed the president. Further, to allay suspicions that the murder was a conspiratorial plot, it stated that the committee 'found no evidence' that either Oswald or Ruby 'was part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign, to assassinate President Kennedy.'

In 1979, however, the House assassinations committee, after approximately two years of investigation, concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald probably was part of a conspiracy that also may have included members of organized crime.

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