John F. Kennedy Biography

Here's a detailed look at the life and times of John F. Kennedy, the most famous and youngest President of America.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Jun 15, 2018
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 till his assassination in 1963.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
May 29, 1917 - November 22, 1963
Brookline, Massachusetts
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy, John F Kennedy Jr
35th President of United States of America
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, also known by his initials, JFK, and was at the helm of a nation undergoing enormous change, during turbulent times. His policies and actions as President put America on the path of economic and social growth, and according to a CNN poll in 2011, he remains the most popular American President ever, with approval ratings of nearly 85%. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crises, the Cold War weapons race, the African-American Civil rights movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War, were some of the historic events that took place during his presidency. The following article attempts to chronicle the life of one of America's most iconic leaders.
Early Years
John F. Kennedy was born on May 29th 1917, the second son of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Sr., at their home on 83 Beals Street, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was named after his maternal grandfather, John 'Honey Fitz' Fitzgerald, a wealthy and influential politician in Boston. John Kennedy was born into a family whose members had, over two generations, established themselves as prominent leaders of the Irish American community and successful businessmen. His parent's marriage too, was a strategic political alliance between two influential Bostonian political families, the Kennedy's and the Fitzgerald's. Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., was educated at Harvard and made his fortune in the stock markets, and later in the booming post-World War I real estate and liquor business. He was a close friend of Franklin Roosevelt, who appointed him the first chairman of the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of America.
The senior Kennedy was devoted to his children, and had great hopes for their future. Jack and his siblings, Joseph, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert, Jean and Edward, were pushed hard to excel at everything, from swimming, to school debates. As a child, Kennedy was often laid low by illnesses, some of them life-threatening, and once almost died of scarlet fever, yet his indomitable spirit yearned for adventure and he competed with his elder brother Joe, at both sports and academics. They lived for many years in Brookline, while Kennedy studied at various schools such as Edward Devotion School and the Dexter School. The Kennedy family would spend the summers at their Hyannis port home in Massachusetts, while Christmas was often celebrated at their Palm Beach residence, in Florida. At school, Kennedy showed sparks of brilliance in subjects he liked, such as English and History, but was overall a mediocre student, spending far more time in practical jokes and chasing girls than his studies.
In 1931 he required an appendectomy which forced him to withdraw from Canterbury School and spend the year at home. Despite his poor grades and irregular health he gained admission to the elite Choate preparatory School in Connecticut. Here too, he was beset by health problems and had to be admitted to the Yale-New Haven hospital for treatment of colitis. When not convalescing from frequent bouts of illness, Kennedy was involved in what he called 'The Muckers Club', a group of close-knit friends that included Kirk LeMoyne "Lem" Billings, who remained a close friend throughout Kennedy's life, even campaigning for him in the 1960 presidential election race. After graduating from Choate in 1935, Kennedy spent a short stint at Princeton University before withdrawing, once again due to his faltering health, and enrolled at Harvard College the following year.
His years at Harvard were eventful, as he drove around Europe with his friends, accompanied his father and brother to London in 1938, and traveled once again to Europe, in 1939, to visit the Balkans and the Soviet Union. He returned to the US from a trip to Germany on September 1, 1939, on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, which signaled the onset of World War II. His academics improved, and in 1940, he wrote a thesis, analyzing why Britain was ill-prepared to face Germany in the event of war. It was titled 'Appeasement in Munich' and was later published as a book titled, 'Why England Slept', and became a best seller. John F. Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940, obtaining a Bachelors of Science cum laude in international affairs.
World War II and the PT-109
It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war. ~ JFK
As Europe crumbled under the might of Hitler's killing machines, America held fast to its position of complete neutrality in the war. It would have remained so if not for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Kennedy, who had been disqualified from service due to a bad back, was at that time, serving as an ensign in the Navy, a position he acquired after Kennedy Sr. pulled a few strings at the Office of Naval Intelligence. Kennedy underwent training at the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center, and was assigned in Panama, rising quickly to the rank of Lieutenant, at the helm of a Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat. Kennedy was assigned to PT-109 and sent to patrol the frigid waters of the South Pacific. His time there would be short though, as on the night of August 2, 1943, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, returning to port after a mission, ran them through, breaking the small boat in half. 2 of his crewmen were killed immediately, and Kennedy himself was thrown against the bulkhead, severely injuring his back. The crew managed to stay afloat on flotsam and Kennedy decided to head for a small island a few miles away. They swam nearly 4 miles in the dark, surrounded by sharks, while Kennedy towed Patrick H. McMahon, an injured crew member, holding the strap of his life jacket between his teeth. They were stranded for 6 days, surviving on coconuts, before being rescued by local islanders. His heroic actions in the war earned Kennedy the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and also a Purple Heart. The piece of coconut shell he used to write a rescue message was later fashioned into a paperweight, and rested on his desk in the Oval office during his presidency. Although Kennedy came away from war relatively unscathed, his brother Joe, envisioned by their father as the future President of the US, was killed in action over France, and the mantle of political leadership fell to young Jack Kennedy.
As Congressman and Senator
Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, my brother Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, Teddy would take over for him. ~ JFK
After the war, Kennedy worked as a reporter for the Hearst newspapers, before deciding to run for the US House of Representatives in 1946. His campaign was a successful one, in part due to the excellent connections and vast wealth of his father, and further bolstered by his own status as a war hero. Kennedy served in the House from 1946 to 1952, but grew steadily dissatisfied by what he thought of as peanut politics. He wanted to graduate to a higher political arena and decided to run for Senate, against the incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. He employed his younger brother Robert as his campaign manager, and backed by the finances of his family, they put together a brilliant campaign, winning the seat. It was a remarkable victory for the young Senator, as there were Republicans in both houses of Parliament that year. The democratic party recognized JFK as a force to be reckoned with.
The charm of the future President was already visible, he was young, well-educated, confident and rich, yet in tune with the times, unlike the condescending holy cows of politics before him. John Kennedy was slowly, but surely, personifying the American dream. On September 12, 1953 he married the beautiful Jacqueline Bouvier, a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald, and future First Lady of the United States. Kennedy also penned his second book, Profiles in Courage, about Senators who had taken tough, often career-damaging decisions, to do what was right. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957, making JFK the only American president to have won the prestigious award.
The President and his Camelot
My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. ~ JFK
John Kennedy's run for presidency began with a nomination for Vice President in 1956, on a ticket with the presidential nominee from the Democratic party Adlai Stevenson. However, he lost to Senator Estes Kefauver from Tennessee. The episode brought him into national prominence as a political leader and Kennedy decided to run for President in 1960. It would turn out to be the most closely contested presidential race of all time with polls showing Kennedy ahead of the Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon by a mere .2% (49.7% to 49.5%).
The campaign was notable for Kennedy's handling of various issues raised by the opposition and the problems Americans were facing then. The economy was sluggish, the Cold War was taking its toll on national morale and people believed America had fallen behind the Soviet Union in space exploration. Cuba had suffered a coup d'etat, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and was openly communist, trading with the Soviets and nationalizing American businesses on its soil. However, the biggest challenge to Kennedy's campaign lay far closer to home, in fact it was his religion. Being a Roman Catholic alienated him from the conservative vote bases in states like West Virginia and the south. At one of his speeches he addressed this issue with a famous quote "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters - and the Church does not speak for me."
He won in West Virginia too, and was appointed the Democratic party's nominee for President on July 13, 1960. Against the advice of his brother, Robert, and also other liberals, he appointed Lyndon Baines Johnson as his running mate for Vice President, to garner support from the southern states such as Texas, where Johnson held power. His opponent and current Vice President, Richard M Nixon, relied more on his experience and campaigned in all 50 states, wasting time and resources, whereas Kennedy focused on key states and used media such as television, effectively. He also galvanized local political bosses in big cities such as Chicago, New York and Detroit to swing votes.
The turning point, however, came during the presidential debates, when Kennedy, smartly dressed and confident, outfoxed an unshaven and depressed looking Nixon. Television had penetrated millions of homes by the late 1950s and the Kennedy-Nixon debates were the first presidential debates to be broadcast live. Popular majority turned to him, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States on January 20, 1961. He was the youngest nominee and the first Roman Catholic to become president.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the globe was divided into a bipolar arrangement of superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States in the Western hemisphere, and its foe, the flag-bearer of communism in the East, the United Soviet Socialist Republic. When Kennedy ascended to the presidency, relations between the two countries were at an all time low. The Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was in the process of finalizing a treaty, which would make East Berlin an ally of Moscow. This was the focal point of the Vienna talks in June 1961, when President Kennedy warned his Soviet counterpart that any such treaty would be considered an act of war against the US. However, the treaty went through, and thousands of people began to flee into American-controlled West Berlin, forcing the Russians to build the Berlin Wall. This was but the start of a series of historic events that took place in Kennedy's time.
The Bay of Pigs Fiasco
How could I have been so stupid? ~ JFK
Fearing the growing clout of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in America's own backyard, President Kennedy decided to send in an armed resistance force to overthrow the Cuban leadership. Known as Brigade 2506, it was made of nearly 1500 exiles from the Castro regime and landed in Cuba in an area known as the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. The brigade was trained and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency for reasons of plausible deniability. Against the demands of the Director Allen Dulles, President Kennedy did not agree to provide air support to the invaders, after the first wave of bombers, painted as Cuban aircraft, were discovered. As a result, most of the brigade was caught or killed by the Cuban army. The US had to later negotiate the release of nearly one thousand exiles against a hefty sum, and the incident became an international PR disaster. Organizations in the US, such as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee held protests against this unabashed show of American imperialism.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. ~ JFK
Known as the day the world came closest to nuclear annihilation, the crisis began on October 14, 1962, when U-2 spy planes, flying high above Cuban forests, photographed dozens of missile silos and launchers, strategically placed, facing the US. The missiles were quickly determined to be Russian IRBMs, capable of penetrating deep into American airspace. This was arguably the most challenging time of Kennedy's presidency and he rose to the occasion magnificently. If the US did nothing, it would be a moral victory for the Soviets , however, if they took action it could result in an all out nuclear confrontation. President Kennedy decided on a naval blockade of all Soviet ships approaching Cuba, while simultaneously informing the world and Khrushchev of his intentions. After 14 days of tense negotiations, the Russians backed down and agreed to dismantle the sites. Khrushchev agreed to this on the express condition, that missile batteries placed in Turkey during the presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower be removed. Both sides agreed and the doomsday clock, uncomfortably close to 12 pm, was pushed back a few minutes. It was a major victory for JFK, as the American people and the world at large saw in him a capable and fearless leader.
The Space Race
We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share...I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. ~ JFK
It is said that space is the final frontier and during the 60s the Soviet Union was doing all it could to get farther than its closest competitor, the United States. The Russians drew first blood, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961. It inspired President Kennedy to jump-start the Apollo program, languishing at NASA since 1960. One of his most famous quotes came during his speech at Rice University in 1962, as he addressed American ambitions of exploring space, and specifically, landing on the moon. "No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." The Apollo program, the costliest space exploration undertaking ever , cost nearly $40 billion, and landed a man on the moon, 6 years after Kennedy's death.
JFK and Vietnam
Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any assure the survival and success of liberty. ~ JFK
President Kennedy was acutely aware of how the Soviet communist juggernaut was engulfing Southeast Asia. He deemed Vietnam as a crucial geo-political battleground between the forces of democracy and communist ideology. The south Vietnamese had offered alliance with American forces, to help ward off the Northern armies, which were in turn supplied by the Soviets. The initial steps taken by Kennedy were to provide limited military aid to South Vietnam. A coup d'etat occurred on November 1, 1963, when forces led by a South Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh captured and killed the President of Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, allies of the United States but fallen from favor, due to their persecutory activities. It came as a blow to President Kennedy, who remarked, more than once, that he was considering all options, even pulling out of Vietnam, to stop the unnecessary bloodshed. He also spoke of 'splintering the CIA into a thousand pieces and scattering it into the four winds'. What his course of action would have been if he returned, safe, from his trip to Dallas, is an argument best left to political think tanks, as Lyndon Johnson, his successor overturned a National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) signed by Kennedy ordering the withdrawal of 1000 troops, within days of becoming President. The Vietnam war progressed from a limited military intervention into an all out war between the USA and the North Vietnamese Viet-Cong forces, after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
President Kennedy also formed the Peace Corps in 1961, an organization of volunteers who help underdeveloped nations in areas such as farming, education and health care. Since its formation over 200,000 Americans have joined the peace corps. Kennedy also pushed for a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty , which Khrushchev agreed to, but the treaty remained a partial one as the Russians did not ultimately allow inspections of their nuclear facilities. On June 26, 1963, Kennedy gave one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, in West Berlin, when he stated the American resolve towards the people of Germany and their stance against communism. He spoke the now-famous phrase, 'ich bin ein Berliner' (I am a Berliner) and addressed a spellbound crowd of a million people.
Economic Reforms
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. ~ JFK
Apart from his global outlook, Kennedy had an active domestic agenda which he referred to as the New Frontier. It was a plan to revitalize the economy by reducing tax rates from the high 20-90% to a more citizen-friendly 14-65%, provide better healthcare, education, and social security for the elder generation, and advocated direct government involvement in anti-inflationary measures. Fiscal policies were also restructured under the Kennedy administration, the interest rates were lowered and inflation was controlled. The GDP, which had expanded a mere 2% under Eisenhower, saw a jump of nearly 6% under Kennedy. Industrial production saw a 15% increase in three years, while sales of motor vehicles jumped 40%. The sustained economic growth, steady rates of inflation and low unemployment figures have not been observed since then, despite the Congress not passing some of Kennedy's reforms until 1964, more than a year after his death.
Civil Rights
...I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit. ~ JFK
Even as the world was cowering under the shadow of nuclear war, Americans at home were facing a revolution of sorts. The 60s were the time of awakening, of the end of racial segregation and hate, but the road to that goal was paved with violence and injustice. The Supreme Court had outlawed racial segregation in schools in 1956, but it was a practice, still widespread throughout the southern states of America. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leading light of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and although Kennedy remained lukewarm to the entire political morass of civil rights earlier in his presidency, being far more concerned with Soviet diplomacy, he was impressed by King's speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and invited the whole delegation to the White House. He was, however, treading a fine line, as most of his voter base in the south was pro-segregationist, on the other hand, he would face international criticism if he failed to act against episodes of violence and discrimination against black Americans. It may be why Kennedy never signed a Civil Rights Act into law, many say he never had the chance, whatever the reason may be, John F. Kennedy made a posthumous contribution to the civil rights movement, when his Civil Rights Bill was passed as the Civil Rights Act in 1964, ending all forms of racial discrimination. It was one of the last acts of Kennedy's brief tenure as President, and probably his last political contribution before the tragic events in Dallas.
The First Family
Children are the world's most valuable resource and its best hope for the future. ~ JFK
Apart from his official duties as President, Kennedy was, like his father, a devoted family man, yet, the couple were subject to personal tragedies from the start. Jackie suffered a miscarriage in 1956 and a son, Patrick Kennedy died shortly after birth in 1963. They were, however, blessed with two children, Caroline Kennedy, born in 1957, and John Kennedy Jr., born in 1960 just a few weeks after his father had become President. The Kennedy's were a young family, and the First lady went about turning the drab decor of the White House into a warm, welcoming home for their children. There was a swing set on the lawn and a kindergarten for Caroline and 10 or 15 other children who came every morning. A swimming pool and a tree house on the grounds were other attractions not seen before. Jacqueline Kennedy also undertook a monumental task, that of restoring the legacy of the White House, to feature its cultural, and unique American history. On a visit to France, President Kennedy remarked, "I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself . . . I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it."
Kennedy was also quite the ladies man, and was linked with many famous and beautiful women of his day such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Judith Campbell and Marlene Dietrich. John Kennedy was the first President to allow live broadcasts of White House press conferences and used television as a powerful medium of communication. The Kennedy family was often photographed, vacationing and attending important social events, and these images were published in magazines and dailies all across the nation. President Kennedy was a fan of a Broadway musical called Camelot and soon the Kennedy administration began to be referred to as Camelot, the mythical castle and keep of King Arthur.
You know, last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a President ...There was the rain and the night, and we were all getting jostled. Suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase. ~ JFK, the morning of his assassination.
I'm just a patsy. ~ Lee Harvey Oswald, after his arrest.
By the end of 1963, President Kennedy was busy preparing for the upcoming election year. It would be a tough one too, as there were dissenting voices within the Democratic party itself. He was scheduled on a trip to Dallas, to raise funds for the upcoming election and also as a show of solidarity with the South. Air Force One landed at the Love Field airport in Dallas at 11:40 am, on 22nd November 1963, after a short flight from Forth Worth. The President and the First Lady were to travel in an open limousine, accompanied by the Governor of Texas, John Connally and his wife Nelly Connally, in the front seats. The car would be driven by Secret Service agent William Greer, with special agent Roy Kellerman providing radio support. There were 7 cars in the motorcade, and behind the follow-up car to the Presidential limousine was the Vice Presidential limousine, carrying Lyndon Johnson and his wife Ladybird Johnson. The motorcade route had been made public a few days before and crowds were lining the streets, from the runway at Love field, through the city of Dallas, till the Dallas Trade Mart, where the President was scheduled to make a luncheon speech.
The motorcade route would take President Kennedy to the heart of the city, through an enclosed space surrounded by tall monolithic buildings and bisected by three streets, an area which would be declared an National Historic Landmark in 1993, by the virtue of what was to occur, at 12:29 pm that afternoon. It was called Dealey Plaza. The route to the Trade Mart , required the motorcade to take a sharp left turn onto Elm Street, which would bring it close to a building sitting right at the intersection, the Texas School Book Depository, a 7-floored, red-brick behemoth that overlooked the Plaza. As the motorcade made the slow, agonizing turn, and moved down Elm Street, shots rang out in quick succession, hitting the President in the back and then fatally, in the head. Governor Connally was injured too, suffering broken ribs and a shattered wrist bone. The motorcade sped to Parkland Hospital, where, after a hopeless attempt at saving his life, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:00 pm. The police immediately cordoned off large parts of Dealey plaza and the adjoining Stemmons Freeway, and suspicion fell on the open 6th floor window on the southeast corner of the Depository building, where witnesses said they saw a gunman. There were also conflicting reports of a shooter on a small grassy embankment on the President's right, an area that came to be known as the Grassy knoll. An hour later, a 24-year-old man, Lee Harvey Oswald, was caught in a nearby theater, armed with a pistol. He was found to be an employee of the Depository building and after the discovery of a Mannlicher-Carcano sniper rifle on the sixth floor, was later linked to it via a palm print. J.D Tippit, a patrol policeman, had also been shot and killed 40 minutes after the assassination, and witnesses described a man resembling Oswald fleeing the scene. He was arrested and taken to the Dallas Police Headquarters, but vehemently denied any wrong-doing and claimed he was a patsy.
Television and radio programs all across the country were interrupted to announce the death of the President, and America was shocked into silence. It is perhaps a fitting irony, for a man who lived his life under the glare of the media, to be captured on film in his dying moments. Abraham Zapruder, a local dressmaker came forward with a reel of 8mm film, which he filmed standing on a pedestal in Dealey Plaza, and captured the entire sequence of the assassination. Known today as the 'Zapruder Film', it shows, in silent yet graphic detail, the shots hitting the president and the final bloody impact of the high velocity round, which took his life. The entire assassination had lasted about 6 seconds. There was still a dramatic twist in the tragic drama, as Lee Harvey Oswald, being transferred to the County Jail from police headquarters, was fatally shot by a local club owner, Jack Ruby, and died a short while later. He was never brought to trial or convicted of the killing of the President, yet the Warren Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination, came to a unanimous conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman responsible for the assassination. A subsequent investigation by The House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979 came to the same conclusion but said the killing was probably the result of a conspiracy. Today over 80% Americans are of the opinion that JFK's death was a conspiracy and a government-wide cover-up and important clues were lost due to bungled investigations by the Dallas Police Department and the FBI. Many theories have been put forth in the 50 years since the assassination, and suspicion has been cast on a wide range of personalities and organizations, including but not limited to, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, the Soviets, the Military-Industrial complex and even President Lyndon Johnson himself. However, most such theories lack basis in fact, and play on circumstantial evidence rather than actual proof, still, the assassination remains a hotbed of debate even today, half a century later. The killing of Kennedy was the shattering of the American dream, and until the tragic events of 9/11, remained one of the saddest moments in the history of a great nation.
Historians often debate on what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam, and the growing influence of communism in various parts of the world, had he survived Dallas, but as Kennedy himself said, in a secret tape released by the JFK Library in Boston - "If anyone's going to kill me, it should happen now." He was talking to his wife, after the resolution if the Cuban Missile crises, and thinking of cementing his legacy for future generations. He succeeded well in that. Today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is remembered as a charismatic, independent and idealistic President, who truly believed what he said in his famous speeches. It is no wonder that Americans, and even the world at large rallied around him, they saw in him a beacon of hope, of a man who stood at the verge of a new frontier and asked his people, not to demand what their nation could do for them, but what they can do for their nation.