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John Fitzgerald Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy 35th president of the United States, 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. Therefore his achievements were  limited.

Nevertheless, his influence was worldwide, and his handling of the

Cuban Missile Crisis may have prevented war. Young people especially

liked him. No other  president was so popular. He brought to the

presidency an awareness of the cultural and historical traditions of

the United States. Because Kennedy expressed the values of

20th-century America, his presidency was important beyond its

political achievements.   John Kennedy was born in Brookline,

Massachusetts. He was the second of nine children.

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

Proteezt 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.

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 get 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. Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20,

1961. In his inaugural address he emphasized America’s revolutionary

heritage. 2″The same  beliefs for which our forebears fought are

still at issue around the globe,” Kennedy said. 3″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 Americansborn in this century,

tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our

ancient heritageand 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 challenged Americans to assume the burden of “defending

freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” The words of his address were,

4″Ask not what your country can do for youask what you can do for

your country.”

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 graduates of Harvard. Kennedy’s most

influential adviser was Theodore C. Sorenson, a member of Kennedy’s

staff since his days in the Senate. Sorenson wrote many of Kennedy’s

speeches and exerted a strong influence on Kennedy’s development as a

political liberal, 5 a person who believes that the government should

directly help people to overcome poverty or social discrimination.

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

Kennedy’s held a reception for all the American winners of the Nobel

Prize, people who made outezding 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.

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, 6″I hope you keep it.” On another

occasion he told a group of Republican business leaders, 7″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.

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 mostly 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 which was accomplished in 1969.

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 29, 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, 8″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, 9 “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.”

In 1959, after several attempts, a revolution led by Fidel Castro

finally overthrew the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar.

During the next two years, Castro was to become increasingly hostile

to the United States. The new regime’s agricultural reform laws

provoked 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 more than 1000 Cuban exiles made an amphibious landing

in Cuba at a place called the 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 happen, and air support,

promised by the CIA, never came. The exiles were defeated and the

survivors were taken prisoner. On December 25, 1962, 1113 prisoners

were released in exchange for food and medical supplies valued at a

total of approximately $53 million.

Most other Latin American countries had the same bad 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. All Latin American nations except Cuba joined the Alliance for

Progress, pledging 10″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.

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

failure 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 aggressive policy toward the United States. Kennedy’s last words

to Khrushchev in Vienna were, 11″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 underezd the intentions of the

United States. The leaders had spent a “very sober two days.”

In August 1961, 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 uncontested. Communist interference stopped,

allowing Allied forces travel to and from Berlin. Amongst other

problems President Kennedy faced, none was more serious than this one.

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 12″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.

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.   As the motorcade approached an underpass, two shots

were fired in rapid succession.  One bullet passed through the

president’s neck and struck Governor Connally in the back. The other

bullet struck the president in the head. 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.

That afternoon, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was employed in the warehouse,

was arrested in a Dallas movie theater and charged with the murder.

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. The grave was marked by an eternal flame lighted by

his wife and brothers.

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