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President John F. Kennedy

Updated on January 6, 2017

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was the 35th President of the USA, bom at Brookline, Boston, of Irish descent. His father was Joseph P. Kennedy. Kennedy was educated at Choate School, Princeton, and Harvard, and briefly attended the London School of Economics. He served with distinction in the US navy during the Second World War, winning the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps medal. In 1945, after a brief career in journalism, he was elected a Democratic representative for Massachusetts. At this point, he was mainly concerned with domestic politics and showed few signs of the internationalism for which he later became famous. In 1952 he ran for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr, one of Eisenhower's leading supporters, and defeated him. This was a great personal triumph. In September 1953 he married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. daughter of a banker. They had three children (one of whom, Patrick, who died shortly after birth in 1963, was the first child to be born to a US president in office during the 20th century). His attitude towards McCarthy at this period was equivocal, and has since been much criticized; Kennedy never supported McCarthy's methods, but nor did he condemn them. In December 1954, when the Senate finally censured McCarthy, Kennedy was in hospital and unable to vote. It was at this time, while convalescing from a serious spinal operation, that Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage (published in 1956), which won him a Pulitzer award.

After this his political progress was rapid. He almost won the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956. Subsequently he made his name as a supporter of civil rights' legislation and as a prominent internationalist. But his youth and his Roman Catholicism were considered serious barriers to the White House. Though the Kennedy fortune helped finance his campaigns, the memory of his father's unsuccessful diplomatic career was something of a drawback. His victory, in all seven primaries that he entered, in 1960, however, made his selection on the first ballot as Democratic candidate for the presidency, in June 1960, almost a foregone conclusion. His programme was a radical one, covering promises to deal with both civil rights and social reform. In his television debates with the Republican candidate, Richard nixon, which were compared by many with the Lincoln-Douglas debates of a century earlier, Kennedy did well. Yet in the election Kennedy won the presidency by one of the narrowest margins ever recorded, to become the youngest US president ever elected and the first Roman Catholic.

His inaugural address, with its emphasis on the 'new frontier', was reminiscent of Roosevelt. In fact Kennedy did not succeed in carrying through any major domestic legislation, though, with the aid of his brother Robert kennedy, the Attorney-General, desegregation continued and the Civil Rights Bill was introduced.

It was in foreign affairs that Kennedy's presidency was most notable. Early in 1961 came the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, which, though partially a carry-over from the previous administration, was undoubtedly Kennedy's responsibility. This was redeemed in October 1962 by Kennedy's masterly handling of the Cuban missile crisis, where Kennedy's calm and firmness had a prolonged effect on Russo-US relations, and, in co-ordination with the attitude adopted by khrushchev averted a major war. In August 1961 Kennedy had adopted a firm stand on Berlin. The Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, signed in Moscow by the USA in August 1963, was interpreted as a further lessening of tension between West and East, for which Kennedy's personal initiative was held partially responsible. Though his vision of a grand design for an Atlantic Alliance, as expounded at Philadelphia in July 1962, was to be thwarted by the intransigence of de Gaulle, Kennedy's internationalism evoked a popular response throughout Western Europe, and he gained a European reputation not attained by any of his predecessors. Kennedy visited Western Europe, including Britain, in 1961 and 1963, and was tumultuously received on each occasion: in 1963 his tour included a highly successful visit to the Republic of Ireland. In Washington his wife established the White House as the center of national culture.

On 22 November, while on a tour of Texas, Kennedy was shot while driving through Dallas and died very shortly afterwards. His presumed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, an American who had once defected to the USSR, but later returned to the USA, was himself shot while under arrest on 24 November. Kennedy's death caused worldwide grief and his funeral was attended by heads of state and their representatives from all over the world. Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Among the many memorials erected to him is one at Runnymede, England, unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in his widow's presence in June 1965.


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