John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected president of the United States, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917 into a large, Irish Catholic family. His father, Joseph Kennedy, stressed self-improvement and public service in a spirit of competition and victory. Kennedy spent much of his childhood sick in bed surrounded by books due to a variety of illnesses. After illness forced him to drop out of the London School of Economics and Princeton University, he graduated from Harvard College in 1940. His senior essay, "While England Slept," briefly became a best-selling book.
Kennedy tried to enlist in the army in 1941, but he was rejected because of a back injury he had sustained while playing football at Harvard. As a result of his father's influence, he managed to enlist in the navy. In 1943, after the PT boat he was commanding was sunk by a Japanese destroyer, he heroically saved the life of one of his crew members. In the process, however, he aggravated his back ailment and contracted—and almost died from—malaria. Painful complications from his war injuries plagued him for the rest of his life.
In 1946, Kennedy was elected as a Massachusetts Democrat to his first of three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1952, as a result of diligent campaigning and his father's money, Kennedy defeated the incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., for a seat in the Senate. The next year, he married Washington socialite Jacqueline Bouvier and, while recuperating from back surgery, wrote Profiles in Courage, a book of political sketches that won the Pulitzer Prize.
After an unsuccessful attempt to become Adlai Stevenson's vice presidential running mate in 1956, Kennedy's political career was buoyed by an exceptionally wide victory margin in his reelection to the Senate in 1958. He decided to seek the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1960. After defeating Hubert H. Humphrey in the primaries, and Lyndon B. Johnson and Stevenson at the convention, Kennedy was nominated to run against Richard Nixon. During the campaign, Kennedy faced the challenges of his young age (he was forty-three) and his Roman Catholic religion by openly confronting the concerns of voters in speeches and during four televised debates. He was narrowly elected by a margin of only 118,550 popular votes out of 68.3 million votes cast.
Kennedy brought a refreshing vigor, intelligence, and style to the presidency. In his inaugural speech, he inspired Americans to public service with the famous line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." As president, he projected an image of a leader directly involved in formulating national and international policy.
Kennedy's rhetoric did not always match his actions. In reaction to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, he promised a new U.S. attitude toward Latin America based on trust and partnership through the Alliance for Progress, a program of U.S. aid calling for development and democracy. He also developed and promoted funding for counterinsurgency efforts, funneling millions of dollars to Latin American military forces that would play prominent roles in undermining democracy in the region. In a similar way, he opposed the use of American combat troops in Southeast Asia, yet he gradually increased the U.S. presence there until by the end of 1963 there were 16,732 military advisers in South Vietnam.
Relations with the Soviet Union were complicated by Kennedy's decision to increase defense spending for both conventional weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile development. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev misunderstood Kennedy's lack of commitment to the Bay of Pigs invasion as military weakness (rather than political cowardice) and precipitated confrontations in Berlin and Cuba. Khrushchev had been threatening to sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany, and when he ordered East Germany to build a wall in 1961 to cut off contact between East and West Berlin, Kennedy responded by calling up military reserve units and increasing defense spending. Khrushchev did not sign a treaty, and the crisis cooled.
In 1962, however, U.S. intelligence discovered sites in Cuba being prepared for the installation of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Kennedy informed Khrushchev that the United States would not allow the missile sites to become operational and announced a naval arms blockade of Cuba. For 13 days, the world waited for Khrushchev's reaction as Soviet ships loaded with missiles steamed toward the island. Finally, the Soviet ships began to turn around; and on October 27, Kennedy and Khrushchev reached an acceptable compromise. The United States promised not to support any further invasions of Cuba and to remove some intermediate-range missiles in Turkey, and the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle the missile sites.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, once regarded as Kennedy's "finest hour," has led to sharp criticism by historians astonished at Kennedy's willingness to risk war. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy seemed to have been humbled by the crisis. This led in 1963 to the first thaw in the Cold War, when Great Britain and the Soviet Union joined the United States in banning nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and underwater. Kennedy's foreign policy idealism is perhaps best remembered, however, for his creation of the Peace Corps and his decision to commit the United States to a race with the Soviet Union to put a man on the moon by 1970.
Domestic politics were dominated by the economy and the civil rights movement. Kennedy endorsed the use of tax cuts and increases in government spending to stimulate the economy. By 1964, the unemployment rate had dropped from 8.1 percent to 5.2 percent. Because Congress was dominated by a coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and Republicans, Kennedy's initial civil rights focus was on executive rather than legislative action. The importance of the lily white South to the Democratic Party made civil rights a difficult issue for Kennedy, as it had for Franklin D. Roosevelt. His principal ally was his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Both men were driven faster on this issue than they might otherwise have gone, by the activism of such African-American leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., who resolved not to wait for the approval of the national government before pressing for civil rights. Beginning in 1962, with the desegregation of the University of Mississippi, the Kennedy administration finally began to act, issuing an executive order ending discrimination in federally funded housing, the establishment of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, the extension of the right to vote for African Americans, the appointment of an unprecedented number of African Americans to public office, and the filing of proposals for more complete civil rights legislation.
On November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, Kennedy was shot and killed. The magnitude of the tragedy and the speed with which the Warren Commission (headed by Earl Warren) was forced to work in determining the cause of Kennedy's death left many people in the United States unsatisfied with the commission finding that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot Kennedy. ABC-CLIO
Branch, Taylor. Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. N.p.: N.p., 1988.; Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. N.p.: N.p., 1965.; Sorensen, Theodore C. Kennedy. N.p.: N.p., 1965.; Wills, Garry. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. N.p.: N.p., 1982.