In November 1960, at the age of 43, John F. Kennedy became the youngest man ever elected president of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt had become president at 42 when President William McKinley was assassinated, but he was not elected at that age. On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas, Tex. , the fourth United States president to die by an assassin’s bullet. Kennedy was the nation’s first Roman Catholic president. He was inaugurated in January 1961, succeeding Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
He defeated the Republican candidate, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, by little more than 100,000 votes. It was one of the closest elections in the nation’s history. Although Kennedy and his vice- presidential running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson, got less than half of the more than 68 million votes cast, they won the Electoral College vote. Kennedy thus became the 14th minority president. Because of the close vote, election results were challenged in many states. The official electoral vote was Kennedy 303, Nixon 219, and Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia 15. President Kennedy’s great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1858. They settled in Boston, Mass.
His grandfathers, Patrick J. Kennedy and John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald, were born there. Both men became influential in state politics. “Honey Fitz” served several terms as Boston’s mayor and as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Patrick Kennedy was a powerful ward boss and served in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature. Patrick’s son, Joseph, was a brilliant mathematician. At the age of 25 he became the youngest bank president in the United States. His fortune continued to grow, and he was one of the few financiers to sense the stock market crash of 1929.
He made hundreds of millions of dollars. Joseph married Rose Fitzgerald, daughter of Honey Fitz, on Oct. 7, 1914. Their first child, Joseph, Jr. , was born in 1915. John was born on May 29, 1917. Seven other children followed: Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert, Jean, and Edward (called Teddy). All were born in Brookline, Mass. , a suburb of Boston. Joseph Kennedy, Sr. , set up a million-dollar trust fund for each of his children. This freed them from future financial worry and allowed them to devote their lives to public good, if they desired.
As the children grew, their parents stressed the importance of competitive spirit. One of their father’s favorite mottoes was: “Second place is a loser. ” The drive to win was deeply embedded in the children, and they never did anything halfheartedly. Their parents were careful to neglect neither the intellectual nor the physical development of the children. As they grew older, the children would eat their evening meals in two groups, divided by age. Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy ate at both meals. This allowed them to discuss subjects which were of interest to each group.
All the children attended dancing school while very young, and all, with the exception of Rosemary, loved sports activities. Rosemary did not take part in rough-and-tumble play. The other children, however, thrived on it. Even when they were adults, one of their favorite pastimes was a rousing and often bruising game of touch football. On pleasant days, Mrs. Kennedy took her children for long walks. She made a point of taking them into church for a visit each day. “I wanted them to form a habit of making God and religion a daily part of their lives,” she said later in life.
With this background, it was quite natural for John Kennedy and his brothers and sisters to excel in school and in sports. John attended public schools in Brookline. Later he entered private schools in Riverdale, N. Y. , and Wallingford, Conn. In 1935 and 1936 he studied at the London School of Economics. Then he followed his older brother, Joe, into Harvard University. An excellent athlete, John was a star swimmer and a good golfer. His athletic activities, however, were cut down after he suffered a back injury in a Harvard football game. The injury was to plague him later in life.
John and his older brother were very close. While a young boy, Joe said that someday he would be president of the United States. The family took him at his word. Of all the children Joe seemed the one most likely to enter the political field. Joseph, Sr. , was named ambassador to Great Britain in 1937. John and his older brother then worked as international reporters for their father. John spent his summers in England and much of the rest of his time at Harvard. The brothers often traveled to distant parts of the world to observe events of international importance for their father.
The clouds of World War II were hovering over Europe at that time. The senior Kennedy was a controversial ambassador. His candid remarks about the progress of the war in Europe earned him the disfavor of the English and of some of his countrymen in the United States. His family returned home in 1939, and he followed the next year. John finished his studies at Harvard and was graduated with honors in 1940. Later that same year he did graduate work in economics at Stanford University. He also expanded a college thesis into a full-length book entitled ‘Why England Slept’.
It dealt with England’s unpreparedness for World War II and was based on John’s own experiences while working for his father. The book became a best seller. A few months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, John attempted to enlist in the United States Army. His old back injury kept him from being accepted. After several months of exercise, he was granted a commission in the Navy. Eventually he became the commander of a torpedo boat and saw extensive action in the South Pacific. In August 1943, during a night action in the Solomon Islands, John’s torpedo boat was rammed and cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.
The force of the collision threw him to the deck, reinjuring his back. Despite this, he gathered the ten members of his crew together. One of the crew members was so badly injured that he was unable to swim. He was put into a life jacket. Kennedy gripped one of the jacket’s straps between his teeth and towed the man as the crew swam to a nearby island. It took them five hours to reach it. For his heroism, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal, the Purple Heart, and a citation. The back injury, however, put him out of action for the remainder of the war.
Nearly one year after John’s narrow escape, Joe, Jr. , a Navy pilot, was killed when his plane exploded in the air over the English coast. To his brother’s memory John wrote ‘As We Remember Joe’, a collection of tributes. In 1948 John’s sister Kathleen died in an airplane crash in the south of France. She was the widow of the marquess of Hartington of England. He too had been killed in action during World War II, while leading an infantry charge in Normandy, France. The death of his brother deeply affected John Kennedy. Before the war Joe had decided to carry on with his ambition to enter politics.
This caused a certain degree of disappointment for John, because he too had considered that field. He felt, however, that one Kennedy in politics was enough and determined to become a newspaperman. After his discharge from the Navy he worked for a short time as a correspondent for the Chicago Herald American and the International News Service. In 1946 he decided to enter politics. To the family this was the most natural thing for him to do. For his first target, Kennedy chose to try for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. He would represent the 11th Massachusetts Congressional District.
His family rallied to his side as he began his campaign for the nomination. Because the 11th district was predominantly Democratic, the candidate for the office would have no trouble being elected once he had gained the nomination. Kennedy and his family worked tirelessly. Their efforts, Kennedy’s own impressive war record, and his family’s political background greatly aided his campaign. He easily defeated eight other candidates running for the same nomination. In office, Kennedy quickly established himself as a moderately independent thinker.
Occasionally he voted against proposed measures which had met with the approval of his own Democratic party. He was reelected in 1948 and 1950. An accomplished orator, the young congressman became a popular speaker. His back injury, however, continued to bother him. He often appeared on the House floor and at speaking engagements supported by crutches. In 1946 he was named by the United States Chamber of Commerce as one of the nation’s outstanding men of the year. In 1952 Kennedy decided to run for the United States Senate.
His opponent was Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Again the Kennedy family worked side by side to get John elected. Kennedy defeated Lodge by more than 70,000 votes. The victory was particularly impressive because across the rest of the nation Republican candidates were swept into office along with the landslide of votes for the new Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the Senate Kennedy had woolen textile tariffs raised and urged President Eisenhower to obtain an agreement with Japan to cut textile imports. The president agreed to do so. Kennedy helped pass several other measures important to Massachusetts’ textile industry.
He also sponsored bills which improved his state’s conservation programs. One of the many committees Kennedy served on was the Select Committee of the Senate to Investigate Improper Activities in Labor-Management Relations. His younger brother Robert was chief legal counsel for this group. The two Kennedys were frequently in the public eye in 1959 as the committee investigated racketeering among top labor union officials. John sponsored a labor bill which did a great deal to eliminate criminal practices in unions.
Kennedy met his future wife, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, at a Washington, D. C. arty shortly after his election to the Senate. Described as a cameo beauty, Jackie was the daughter of a Long Island family. At the time they met, she was a photographer and a pen-and-ink artist for a Washington, D. C. , newspaper. They were married on Sept. 12, 1953. Their daughter, Caroline, was born in 1957. Their son, John Fitzgerald, was born on Nov. 25, 1960, 17 days after Kennedy was elected president of the United States. As wife of the president, Jackie became one of the most gracious and most beautiful White House hostesses. Jackie was born on July 28, 1929, at Southampton, Long Island.
She attended several private American schools and the Sorbonne, in Paris, France. She was graduated from George Washington University, in Washington, D. C. Kennedy’s old back injury still gave him a great deal of pain. Beginning in October 1954 he underwent a series of spinal operations. While he was recuperating in 1955 he decided to write a book he had been contemplating for several years. It was a series of portraits of eight of the most courageous senators in the nation’s history. Entitled ‘Profiles in Courage’, it became a best seller and won Kennedy the 1957 Pulitzer prize for biography.
During his campaign for the 1960 Democratic nomination, Kennedy often began his speeches with this remark: “Thanks for not voting for me in 1956. ” That was the year he barely missed being nominated vice-president on the Democratic ticket. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who won the nomination, and Adlai E. Stevenson, the presidential nominee, were defeated in the election. Had Kennedy won the nomination and been defeated in the election, his chances for the presidency might have been lost. Following the 1956 national election, Kennedy began an elaborate campaign for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination.
His popularity increased. In 1958 he was reelected to the Senate by a margin of some 874,000 votes, more than any other Massachusetts senator had ever received. His brother Robert managed John’s senatorial campaign. In 1958 Teddy, the youngest of the Kennedy family, worked with Robert in managing John’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. In the early months of 1960 Kennedy entered and won seven primary elections across the nation. At the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles he received his party’s nomination on the first ballot.
During the campaign Kennedy and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon met in four nationally televised debates. It was generally conceded that these television appearances helped Kennedy more than Nixon. As Kennedy took office, cold-war tensions between Communist and Western nations increased. Communist forces pushed into Laos and threatened South Vietnam. The new president pledged strong efforts to halt the spread of Communism. Toward this end, he created a Peace Corps of young Americans to work in underdeveloped countries. After the Soviets successfully launched the first man into outer space in April 1961, Kennedy asked for a greatly increased budget for space research.
This new phase of the cold war was called the “space race. ” The first United States manned space flight was in May. In the spring of 1961 the Bay of Pigs near Havana, Cuba, was invaded by opponents of Cuba’s Communist premier, Fidel Castro. The rebels were defeated quickly. The invasion had been aided by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Kennedy was criticized by some for having approved the CIA’s support of the invasion. Others blamed him for the operation’s failure. Kennedy met with Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union in Vienna in June to discuss the German question.
The conference did not alter Communist goals. The Berlin Wall was built in August. At home Kennedy won Congressional approval of a number of his proposals, including greater social security benefits, a higher minimum wage, and aid to economically depressed areas in the country. The 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified early in Kennedy’s administration. It gave the residents of Washington, D. C. , the right to vote in presidential elections. In March 1961 Kennedy proposed an international economic development program for the Americas.
The charter for the program, called the Alliance for Progress, was ratified in August by the Organization of American States (OAS) In March 1962 Kennedy used his influence to get a steel-industry wage settlement generally regarded as noninflationary. Early in April, however, several companies announced increases in their steel prices. Kennedy reacted strongly. He exerted unusual pressure by shifting government orders to rival steel manufacturers and by threatening lawsuits against the companies that were attempting to raise their prices. Within four days the price increases were canceled.
Kennedy’s most important legislative success of 1962 was the passage of the Trade Expansion Act. It gave the president broad powers, including authority to cut or eliminate tariffs. The act was designed to help the United States compete or trade with the European Economic Community (EEC) on equal terms. Kennedy’s medical care project was defeated in Congress. Under this plan certain hospital expenses for most elderly persons would have been paid through the social security system. In October 1962 Kennedy faced the most serious international crisis of his administration.
Aerial photographs proved that Soviet missile bases were being built in Cuba. Declaring this buildup a threat to the nations of the Western Hemisphere, Kennedy warned that any attack by Cuba would be regarded as an attack by the Soviets and the United States would retaliate against the Soviet Union. He also imposed a quarantine on ships bringing offensive weapons to Cuba. Negotiations were carried on between the president and Khrushchev. By the end of November the missiles had been shipped back to the Soviet Union, the United States had lifted the quarantine, and the month-long crisis had abated.