John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th president of the United States (1961-1963), the youngest person ever to be elected president. He was also the first Roman Catholic president and the first president to be born in the 20th century.
Kennedy was assassinated before he completed his third year as president. His achievements, both foreign and domestic, were therefore limited. Nevertheless, his influence was worldwide, and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis may have prevented war. Young people especially admired him, and perhaps no other president was so popular. He brought to the presidency an awareness of the cultural and historical traditions of the United States and an appreciation of intellectual excellence. Because Kennedy eloquently expressed the values of 20th-century America, his presidency had an importance beyond its legislative and political achievements.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Kennedy was the second of nine children of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and his wife, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. The other children in the family were Joseph, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert, Jean, and Edward. Robert and Edward Kennedy also entered politics. The family was wealthy. By the age of 30, Joseph Kennedy had amassed a fortune through business ventures that included motion pictures, shipbuilding, real estate, and stock-market speculation.
The Kennedy family had long been active in politics. Rose Kennedy was the daughter of John F. Fitzgerald, who, as mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, was popularly known as “Honey Fitz.” Joseph Kennedy was the son of Patrick Kennedy, a successful businessman and a prominent Boston politician. Although Joseph Kennedy never held elective office, he held appointive positions in the federal government during the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945).
At 13, John Kennedy went to the Canterbury School, a private school in New Milford, Connecticut, but he fell ill and never returned. He later graduated from Choate Preparatory School in Wallingford, Connecticut, and in 1935 he entered Princeton University. Again illness forced him to leave school, but he resumed his studies the following year at Harvard University.
Despite frequent illness, Kennedy was a good athlete. While at Harvard he concentrated especially hard on swimming and with his brother Joe won the intercollegiate sailing title. However, he was forced to give up football after injuring his spine in practice.
Kennedy used his undergraduate thesis at Harvard as the basis for a book, Why England Slept (1940), a study of Britain’s response to German rearmament prior to World War II. The book gained attention in England and the United States. Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940. For a few months he attended Stanford University’s business school and then he traveled in South America.
|B||World War II Military Service|
World War II began in 1939 as a conflict between Germany on one side and Britain and France on the other; the United States entered the war in December 1941 after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The war eventually included most of the nations of the world and ended in 1945.
Kennedy hoped to fight in the war but in the spring of 1941 he was rejected by the U.S. Army because of the back injury he had received at Harvard. Determined to see active service, he passed the U.S. Navy physical examination after a five-month program of special exercise.
Early in 1943 Kennedy became commander of PT Boat 109 in the South Pacific. In August 1943 the boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in waters off New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. The boat was sliced in half and 2 of the 13 men aboard were killed. Kennedy and the other survivors clung for hours to the wreckage, hoping for rescue. When none came, they swam to a small island 5 km (3 mi) away. Kennedy towed a wounded crew member by clenching the long strap of the injured man’s life jacket between his teeth.
For the next four days, Kennedy swam along a water route that he knew American ships used. He finally encountered friendly natives on Cross Island. They brought his message for help, carved on a coconut shell, to U.S. infantry patrol and Kennedy and his crew were finally rescued. For his “courage, endurance, and excellent leadership,” Kennedy received the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medal, awarded for heroism not involving conflict with the enemy. Then, because of an attack of malaria and the recurrence of his back disorder, Kennedy returned to the United States for medical treatment.
|III||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
In 1944 Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph, was killed on a bombing mission over Belgium. Previously Joe Kennedy had planned to make his career in politics. Now John Kennedy, working as a reporter for the Hearst International News Service, decided to enter politics himself. Later, as a U.S. senator, Kennedy said, “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happens to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, Teddy would take over for him.”
|A||Candidate for Congress|
In 1946 Kennedy set out to win the Democratic nomination in the 11th Congressional District of Massachusetts. This district included Cambridge and a working-class section of Boston. Entering the race early, Kennedy publicized his war record, concentrated on meeting the voters, and developed a political organization.
Though he ran against nine other candidates, Kennedy won the primary with 42 percent of the votes. He went on to defeat his Republican opponent in the general election and became a congressman at the age of 29. He served three terms in the House of Representatives, all during the Democratic administrations of President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953).
As a new member of the Congress of the United States, Kennedy supported legislation that would serve the interests of his constituents. Although he usually backed the bills sponsored by his party, he often showed his independence by voting with the Republicans against measures sponsored by the Truman administration. He also joined with Republicans in criticizing the Truman administration’s handling of China. In China the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, which had been supported by the United States, was unable to withstand the advance of Communist forces under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). By the end of 1949 government troops had been overwhelmingly defeated, and Chiang led his forces into exile on Taiwan. The triumphant Mao formed the People’s Republic of China. Truman’s critics, including Kennedy, charged that the administration had failed to support Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists.
Kennedy easily won reelection to Congress in 1948 and 1950. In 1952 he decided to run against incumbent Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Because Kennedy was little known outside his congressional district, he began his campaign two years before the election and met hundreds of thousands of people throughout Massachusetts. The entire Kennedy family took part in the campaign, and Kennedy defeated Lodge by 70,000 votes despite the fact that Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican presidential candidate, carried the state by 208,000 votes.
|C||United States Senator|
As a candidate for the Senate, Kennedy had promised the voters that he would do more for Massachusetts than Lodge had done. During his first two years as senator he backed legislation beneficial to the Massachusetts textile, fishing, watch, and transportation industries. In 1953, however, he defied regional interests and supported the St. Lawrence Seaway project. Later, in 1955, he was the only New England senator to support renewal of the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act that gave the president the power to lower U.S. tariffs, or taxes on imported goods, in exchange for similar concessions from other countries.
In 1953 Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. The Kennedys had four children: a daughter, who was stillborn in 1956; Caroline, who was born in 1957, and two sons, John, born 17 days after the presidential election in 1960, and Patrick Bouvier, who died less than 48 hours after his birth in 1963.
|C2||Illness and Convalescence|
Less than a year after his marriage, Kennedy underwent a spinal-disk operation. Four months later, after a painful convalescence, a second back operation was performed.
While Kennedy was in the hospital, the Senate voted to censure Wisconsin’s Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy for his conduct as a member of a Senate subcommittee. In February 1950 Senator McCarthy had charged the State Department with knowingly employing 205 Communists. An investigation found all of the charges to be false, but McCarthy continued to accuse other government officials of Communist sympathies without any evidence. He was eventually discredited, but Kennedy refused to take a position against McCarthy. As a result, many liberal members of the Democratic Party opposed Kennedy when he sought both the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956 and the presidential nomination in 1960.
During his convalescence, Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage, a book of essays on American politicians who risked their careers fighting for just but unpopular causes. Published in 1956, the book received the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. Because of the success of Profiles in Courage, many people who had known little about Kennedy came to admire him, both for his literary skill and for his understanding of the great issues of American history. Nevertheless, it remained for the 1956 Democratic National Convention to bring Kennedy widespread national attention.
|C3||Presidential Election of 1956|
At the Democratic convention, Kennedy nominated former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson for the presidency. Stevenson left the selection of a vice-presidential candidate to the vote of the convention. Kennedy attempted to win the nomination but on the third ballot the convention chose Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Kennedy then moved that the vote be made unanimous.
Kennedy’s failure to gain the vice-presidential nomination probably did more good than harm to his political career. The convention had brought him to the attention of the nation without associating him with Stevenson, who lost the election to Eisenhower. During the 1956 presidential campaign Kennedy spoke on behalf of Stevenson and Kefauver in 26 states.
|C4||Later Senate Career|
In 1957 Kennedy became a member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he later won a place on the Senate Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor Management Field, on which his brother Robert served as chief counsel. In 1958 he spent many of his weekends campaigning for reelection in Massachusetts. His margin of victory, 874,000 votes, was the largest ever recorded in a Massachusetts senatorial contest.
Kennedy now began speaking out on foreign affairs. He was a severe critic of France’s refusal to make concessions to its colony, Algeria, and he advocated Algerian independence. He urged increased economic aid to underdeveloped nations.
Furthermore, Kennedy’s ideas contributed to the Landrum-Griffin Law. This act guaranteed the rights of union members to union meetings, free speech and assembly, and the election of union officers by secret ballot. It also required labor and management organizations and labor consultants to file detailed financial reports of their dealings. As chairman of the Senate Reorganization Subcommittee, Kennedy supported many of the proposals of a commission led by former U.S. President Herbert Hoover for improving the efficiency of the federal government and translated them into law.
|D||Election of 1960|
Kennedy wanted the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, and almost as soon as the 1956 election was over, he began working for it. He faced several major obstacles. Many party leaders considered him too young and too inexperienced for the presidency. Many also doubted that a Roman Catholic could win a national election in a country that was mostly Protestant. In addition, Kennedy still lacked the support of many Democratic liberals, who backed either Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota or Adlai Stevenson.
Kennedy announced his candidacy early in 1960. By the time the Democratic National Convention opened in July, he had won seven primary victories. His most important had been in West Virginia, where he proved that a Roman Catholic could win in a predominantly Protestant state.
When the convention opened, it appeared that Kennedy’s only serious challenge for the nomination would come from the Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. However, Johnson was strong only among Southern delegates. Kennedy won the nomination on the first ballot and then persuaded Johnson to become his running mate.
Two weeks later the Republicans nominated Vice President Richard Nixon for president and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who was ambassador to the United Nations and whom Kennedy had defeated for the Senate in 1952, for vice president. In the fast-paced campaign that followed, Kennedy made stops in 46 states and 273 cities and towns, while Nixon visited every state and 170 urban areas.
Although the Republican candidate refused to make Kennedy’s religion an issue, it was an important factor in many areas of the country. Many Protestants feared that a Catholic might be subject to the orders of the head of the Roman Catholic church, the Pope. In a speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Kennedy said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute ... where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from ... [an] ecclesiastical source.”
Kennedy promised to “get the nation moving again” with a political program he called the New Frontier, a name that reminded many of the New Deal program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) and the Fair Deal of President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953).
The two candidates faced each other in four nationally televised debates. Kennedy’s manner, especially in the first debate, seemed to eliminate the charge that he was too young and too inexperienced to serve as president, and many believed these debates gave Kennedy victory.
Another important element of the campaign was the support Kennedy received from blacks in important Northern states, especially Illinois and Pennsylvania. They supported him in part because he and Robert Kennedy had tried to obtain the release of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. King, who had been jailed for taking part in a civil rights demonstration in Georgia, was released soon afterward.
The election drew a record 69 million voters to the polls, but Kennedy won by only 113,000 votes. He won 49.7 percent of the popular vote, and Nixon won 49.6 percent. It was the closest popular vote in 72 years. However, because Kennedy won most of the larger states in the northeastern United States, he received 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219.
|IV||PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES|
Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address he emphasized America’s revolutionary heritage. “The same ... beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe,” Kennedy said.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
Kennedy called for “a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.” He recognized the difficulties of this goal. “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” he said. “Nor will it be finished in the first 1000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
Kennedy challenged Americans to assume the burden of “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” The words of his address were, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy’s Cabinet appointments included Dean Rusk, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, as secretary of state, and Robert S. McNamara, president of Ford Motor Company, as secretary of defense. Neither had been active in politics, and McNamara was a Republican. Other appointments were C. Douglas Dillon, who had been undersecretary of state in the Eisenhower administration, as secretary of the treasury, and Kennedy’s own brother, Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general.
Kennedy sought with considerable success to attract brilliant young people to government service. His hope was to bring new ideas and new methods into the executive branch. As a result many of his advisers were teachers and scholars. Among them were McGeorge Bundy and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., both of Harvard.
Kennedy’s most influential adviser was Theodore C. Sorensen, a member of Kennedy’s staff since his days in the Senate. Sorensen wrote many of Kennedy’s speeches and exerted a strong influence on Kennedy’s development as a political liberal, a person who believes that the government should directly help people to overcome poverty or social discrimination.
|B||Life in the White House|
The president and Mrs. Kennedy attempted to make the White House the cultural center of the nation. Writers, artists, poets, scientists, and musicians were frequent dinner guests. On one occasion the Kennedys held a reception for all the American winners of the Nobel Prize, people who made outstanding contributions to their field during the past year. At the party the president suggested that more talent and genius was at the White House that night than there had been since Thomas Jefferson had last dined there alone.
Kennedy was an avid reader and was particularly interested in what the press said about his administration. In the early days of his presidency, before great problems began to weigh on him, he enjoyed his press conferences, but later he held them less and less frequently. In many of his public statements his quick wit blunted criticism as he made fun of his own weaknesses as well as those of others.
At a meeting with the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy asked the name of a medal Khrushchev was wearing. When the premier identified it as the Lenin Peace Medal, Kennedy remarked, “I hope you keep it.” On another occasion he told a group of Republican businessleaders, “It would be premature to ask for your support in the next election and inaccurate to thank you for it in the past.” Even in great crises, Kennedy retained his sense of humor.
|C1||New Frontier Legislation|
Kennedy’s first year in office brought him considerable success in enacting new legislation. Congress passed a major housing bill, a law increasing the minimum wage, and a bill granting federal aid to economically depressed areas of the United States. The most original piece of legislation Kennedy put through Congress was the bill creating the Peace Corps, an agency that trained American volunteers to perform social and humanitarian service overseas. The program’s goal was to promote world peace and friendship with developing nations. The idea of American volunteers helping people in foreign lands touched the idealism of many citizens. Within two years, Peace Corps volunteers were working in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, living with the people and working on education, public health, and agricultural projects.
However, after his initial success with Congress, Kennedy found it increasingly difficult to get his programs enacted into law. Although the Democrats held a majority in both houses, Southern Democrats joined with conservative Republicans to stop legislation they disliked. The Medicare bill, a bill to make medical care for the aged a national benefit, was defeated. A civil rights bill and a bill to cut taxes were debated, and compromises were agreed to, but even the compromises were delayed. A bill to create a Cabinet-level Department of Urban Affairs was soundly defeated, partly because Kennedy wanted the economist Robert C. Weaver, a black man, to be the new secretary. Southern Congressmen united with representatives from predominantly rural areas to defeat the bill.
Kennedy did win approval of a bill to lower tariffs and thus allow more competitive American trade abroad. Congress also authorized the purchase of $100 million in United Nations bonds, and the money enabled the international organization to survive a financial crisis. Further, Congress appropriated more than $1 billion to finance sending a man to the moon by 1970.
In April 1962, a few weeks after labor and management in the steel industry had signed a contract that Kennedy said would not increase inflation because it increased benefits for workers but not their wages, the country’s major steel companies announced a price increase. Calling the increase a “wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest,” the angry president used all his powers to get the steel companies to rescind the increase. This display of strength caused many to refer to Kennedy as antibusiness, a charge the president was later to deny many times.
The major American legal and moral conflict during Kennedy’s three years in office was in the area of civil rights. Black agitation against discrimination had become widespread and well organized. Although Kennedy was in no way responsible for the growth of the civil rights movement, he attempted to aid the black cause by enforcing existing laws. Kennedy particularly wanted to end discrimination in federally financed projects or in companies that were doing business with the government.
In September 1962 Governor Ross R. Barnett of Mississippi ignored a court order and prevented James H. Meredith, a black man, from enrolling at the state university. On the night of September 30, even as the president went on national television to appeal to the people of Mississippi to obey the law, rioting began on the campus. After 15 hours of rioting and two deaths, Kennedy sent in troops to restore order. Meredith was admitted to the university, and troops and federal marshals remained on the campus to insure his safety.
In June 1963, when Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama prevented two blacks from enrolling at the University of Alabama, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to enforce the law. The students were enrolled at the university. Three months later, Kennedy again used the National Guard to prevent Wallace from interfering with integration in the public schools of Birmingham, Tuskegee, and Mobile.
Kennedy also asked Congress to pass a civil rights bill that would guarantee blacks the right to vote, to attend public school, to have equal access to jobs, and to have access to public accommodations. Kennedy told the American people, “Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promises ... to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”
Public opinion polls showed that Kennedy was losing popularity because of his advocacy of civil rights. Privately, he began to assume that the South would oppose him in the next election, but he continued to speak out against segregation, the practice of separating people of different races. To a group of students in Nashville, Tennessee, he said, “No one can deny the complexity of the problem involved in assuring all of our citizens their full rights as Americans. But no one can gainsay the fact that the determination to secure those rights is in the highest tradition of American freedom.”
|D1||Bay of Pigs|
In 1959, after several attempts, a revolution led by Fidel Castro finally overthrew the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar. During the next two years, Castro was to become increasingly hostile to the United States. The new regime’s agrarian reform laws adversely affected U.S. companies that operated sugar plantations. Companies that were not controlled by Cuban stockholders were not allowed to operate plantations, and sugar production was de-emphasized in favor of food crops. In 1960 the Castro government nationalized, or took over ownership of, an estimated $1 billion in properties owned by U.S. companies and citizens, and the Eisenhower administration imposed a trade embargo.
When Castro began to proclaim his belief in Communism, Cuba became part of the Cold War, or struggle between the United States and its allies and the nations led by the USSR that involved intense economic and diplomatic battles but not direct military conflict. Many Cubans fled to the United States. During the Eisenhower administration the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had begun to train Cuban exiles secretly for an invasion of Cuba. When Kennedy became president, he approved the invasion.
In April 1961 about 1500 Cuban exiles made an amphibious landing in Cuba at a place called Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Their plan was to move inland and join with anti-Castro forces to stage a revolt simultaneously, but instead Castro’s forces were there to meet the invaders. The revolt in the interior did not materialize, and air support, promised by the CIA, never came. The exiles were defeated and most of the survivors were taken prisoner.
Castro demanded money for their release. Kennedy refused to negotiate with Castro, but he took steps to encourage both businesses and private citizens to reach an agreement with Castro and to contribute to the ransom. On December 25, 1962, 1113 prisoners were released in exchange for food and medical supplies valued at a total of approximately $53 million.
|D2||Alliance for Progress|
Most other Latin American countries had the same grave social, economic, and political conditions that had led to Castro’s success in Cuba. Many of these nations seemed ripe for a revolution that could easily be exploited by the Communists. Upon taking office, President Kennedy looked for a program that would accelerate change in Latin America by strengthening democratic institutions. In March 1961 he introduced the Alliance for Progress, and in August it was established by the charter of Punte del Este. The Alliance for Progress was to be a Latin American version of the Marshall Plan, the United States plan to fund a cooperative, long-term program to rebuild Europe following World War II (1939-1945). All Latin American nations except Cuba joined the Alliance for Progress, pledging “to bring our people accelerated economic progress and broader social justice within the framework of personal dignity and individual liberty.” The United States promised $20 billion for the first ten years. The Alliance for Progress and President Kennedy’s particular concern for democratic institutions brought the United States renewed popularity in Latin America. The success of the Alliance’s economic programs, however, was limited by the gravity of the problems that they confronted.
|D3||Confrontations in Europe with the USSR|
On June 3, 1961, in Vienna, Austria, Kennedy and Khrushchev met and reviewed relationships between the United States and the USSR, as well as other questions of interest to the two states. Two incidents contributed to hostility at the meeting. The first was the shooting down of a U.S. spy plane in Soviet air space, and the second was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in early 1961. The results of the conference made it clear that Khrushchev had construed Kennedy’s mismanagement of the Bay of Pigs invasion as a sign of weakness. No agreements were reached on any important issues. In fact, the Soviet premier made it clear that the Soviet Union intended to pursue an even more belligerent policy toward the United States.
Kennedy’s last words to Khrushchev in Vienna were, “It’s going to be a cold winter.” He reported to the American people that the Soviet premier was a “tough-minded” leader who did not understand the intentions of the United States. The leaders had spent a “very sober two days.”
In August 1961, in an effort to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West, the Communists ordered a wall built on the border between East and West Berlin. West Berlin had been under the control of the United States, France, and Britain since the end of World War II, although the city lay deep inside East Germany, a state that was an ally of the USSR. Kennedy and other Western leaders protested, but the wall was built.
Kennedy had already asked for more military spending and had called up reserve troops for duty in Europe. When East German soldiers began blocking the Allied route through East Germany into Berlin, Kennedy sent a force of 1500 soldiers marching along the route into West Berlin. The troops went unchallenged. Communist interference with Allied travel to and from Berlin stopped.
|D4||Cuban Missile Crisis|
The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the world’s closest approach to nuclear war. In 1960 Soviet Premier Khrushchev decided to supply Cuba with nuclear missiles that would put the eastern United States within range of nuclear missile attack. Khrushchev, when asked, denied that any missiles were being supplied to Cuba, but in the summer of 1962 U.S. spy planes flying over Cuba photographed Soviet-managed construction work and spotted the first missile on October 14.
For seven days President Kennedy consulted secretly with advisers, discussing the possible responses while in public his administration carried on as though nothing was wrong. Finally, on October 22, Kennedy told the nation about the discovery of the missiles, demanded that the Soviet Union remove the weapons, and declared the waters around Cuba a quarantine zone. Kennedy called upon Khrushchev “to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat to world peace and to stable relations between our two nations” and warned that an attack from Cuba on any nation in the western hemisphere would be considered an attack by the USSR on the United States itself.
At the same time, United States troops were sent to Florida to prepare for invading Cuba, and air units were alerted. American vessels blockaded Cuba with orders to search all suspicious-looking Soviet ships and to turn back any that carried offensive weapons.
For several tense days Soviet vessels en route to Cuba avoided the quarantine zone, while Khrushchev and Kennedy discussed the issue through diplomatic channels. Khrushchev, realizing his weak military position, sent a message on October 26 in which he agreed to Kennedy’s demands to remove all missiles. The following day, before the United States had responded to the first note, Khrushchev sent another, trying to negotiate other terms. Kennedy decided to respond to the first message, and on October 28, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle and remove the weapons from Cuba and offered the United States on-site inspection. In return Kennedy secretly promised not to invade Cuba and to remove older missiles from Turkey. Kennedy called off the blockade but Cuba, angry at Soviet submission, refused to permit the promised inspection. However, U.S. spy planes revealed that the missile bases were being dismantled. Nuclear war had been avoided.
This was perhaps Kennedy’s greatest moment as president. Many felt that both World War I and World War II had begun because of weak responses to acts of aggression, and Kennedy may have prevented World War III by displaying courage and strength.
|D5||Crisis in Southeast Asia|
The breakup of the French colonial empire of Indochina in 1954 intensified the already chaotic conditions in Southeast Asia. As elsewhere, the United States and the USSR competed to establish governments favorable to themselves. Both Laos and South Vietnam were threatened by Communist rebellions. In July 1962 Kennedy’s roving ambassador, W. Averell Harriman, negotiated an international agreement that arranged for a neutral coalition government in Laos headed by Prince Souvanna Phouma. This reversed earlier U.S. policy, which had supported an anti-Communist military dictator. The coalition government, which consisted of both Communist and non-Communist elements, was shaky, but it survived for some time.
Kennedy was less successful in South Vietnam where U.S. military advisers had been training the South Vietnamese army since 1954. The South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem was threatened by a Communist-dominated guerrilla movement, called the National Liberation Front, which was supported by many of the people living in the countryside.
The Diem government, which was dominated by Roman Catholics, proved unable to defeat the Communists or to cope with growing unrest among South Vietnamese Buddhists and other religious groups. Antigovernment agitation was especially strong among the Buddhists, some of whom burned themselves to death to protest the Diem regime. The government charged that the Buddhist groups had become infiltrated by Communists, and arrested many Buddhists. Although this contention was supported by outside observers, including a fact-finding team from the United States, religious friction between the Buddhists and the Catholic-led government was at least as powerful a force as political conflict.
In 1961 Kennedy demonstrated America’s commitment to South Vietnam by increasing the number of military advisers from 700 to 15,000 and ordering them into combat. He also warned that “in the final analysis it is their (South Vietnam’s) war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send out our men as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam.”
Kennedy soon realized that Diem was more interested in maintaining his own hold on power than in defeating the Communists and introducing democracy in South Vietnam. In 1963, when Kennedy was informed of a planned coup to overthrow Diem, he chose to leave the matter in the hands of the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., whom he knew to be in favor of the planned coup. The coup was successful, and Diem was killed in the back of a military personnel carrier. However, the new government was unable to keep the guerrilla war from spreading, in spite of increased U.S. aid.
|D6||Test Ban Treaty|
On August 5, 1963, the United States signed a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the United Kingdom and the USSR. The treaty outlawed nuclear explosions in the atmosphere or underwater, but allowed them underground. In the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the treaty was an important step that Kennedy called “a historic landmark in man’s age-old pursuit of peace.” He considered it the greatest single achievement of his administration.
On November 22, 1963, President and Mrs. Kennedy were in Dallas, Texas, trying to win support in a state that Kennedy had barely carried in 1960. On his way to a luncheon in downtown Dallas, Kennedy and his wife sat in an open convertible at the head of a motorcade. Lyndon Johnson was two cars behind the president, and Texas Governor John B. Connally and his wife were sitting with the Kennedys. The large crowds were enthusiastic.
As the motorcade approached an underpass, three shots were fired in rapid succession. One bullet passed through the president’s neck and struck Governor Connally in the back. A second bullet struck the president in the head; a third one missed the motorcade. Kennedy fell forward, and his car sped to Parkland Hospital. At 1:00 pm, he was pronounced dead. He had never regained consciousness.
Less than two hours after the shooting, aboard the presidential plane at the Dallas airport, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States.
The bullets that killed Kennedy were fired from a sixth-story window of a nearby warehouse. That afternoon, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was employed in the warehouse, was arrested in a Dallas movie theater and charged with the murder. Two days later, as the suspect was being transferred from one jail to another, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby sprang out from a group of reporters and, as millions watched on television, fired a revolver into Oswald’s left side. Oswald died in the same hospital to which the President had been taken.
On November 24 the body of President Kennedy was carried on a horse-drawn carriage from the White House to the Rotunda of the Capitol. Hundreds of thousands of people filed past the coffin of the slain president. A state funeral was held the next day. Representatives of 92 nations attended. As many as 1 million people may have lined the streets of Washington as the funeral procession made its way slowly to Arlington National Cemetery. The grave was marked by an eternal flame lighted by his wife and brothers.
|A2||The Warren Commission|
Five days after the funeral, President Johnson appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren chairman of a committee to investigate Kennedy’s death. The findings of the commission were announced on September 27, 1964. The investigators had found no evidence of conspiracy in the assassination. Their report concluded that “the shots which killed President Kennedy and wounded Governor Connally were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.”