John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917, the second oldest in a family of nine children. His great grandparents had come to the United States from Ireland in the mid-1800s after a food shortage caused severe poverty in that country. Although their families had not come to the United States with much money, both of John Kennedy’s grandfathers became political leaders in Boston. One of them, John Fitzgerald, was elected mayor in 1905. John Kennedy’s father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy became a very wealthy businessman, an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the United States Ambassador to Great Britain from 1938 to 1940.
John Kennedy moved to New York when he was ten years old. Since the family spent the summer months at their home in Hyannis, Cape Cod, Jack still lived a good part of his life in Massachusetts. After graduating from the Choate School in Connecticut in 1935, he went on to Harvard College and graduated in 1940. That same year he wrote a best-selling book, Why England Slept, about some of the decisions which led to World War II.
In 1941, John Kennedy joined the Navy. He became the commander of a small “PT” boat assigned to the battle in the Pacific against the Japanese. One night, while on patrol, Kennedy’s boat was rammed by a large enemy ship. Two men in a crew of thirteen were killed, and the rest swam to a nearby deserted island. They managed to survive, mostly by eating coconuts, until they were rescued a week later.
After World War II, John Kennedy had to choose the kind of work he wanted to do. He considered becoming a teacher or a writer but soon decided to run for political office. In 1946, he was elected to the U.S. Congress, representing a district in greater Boston. Kennedy, a Democrat, served three terms in the House of Representatives, and in 1952 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
In 1953, he married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. The following year he had a serious operation on his back. While recovering from surgery, he wrote a book about several U.S. senators who had risked their careers to fight for the things in which they believed. The book, called Profiles in Courage, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. That same year, the Kennedy’s first child, Caroline, was born.
Kennedy had narrowly missed being picked as the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice President in 1956. Soon after, he began a long campaign to become President in 1960. At the convention on July 13, 1960, the Democrats chose Kennedy as their presidential candidate. Kennedy asked Lyndon B. Johnson to run with him for Vice President. In the general election on November 8, Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon, in a very close race. Kennedy was the youngest man elected President and the first Catholic. Just after the election, the Kennedy’s second child, John Jr., was born.
John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President on January 20, 1961. In his Inaugural Address, he spoke of the need for all Americans to be active citizens. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he said. He also asked the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
During his time as President, JFK had to make difficult decisions. Many of the hardest choices concerned the relationship between our nation and the Soviet Union. Since World War II, there had been a lot of anger and suspicion between the two countries but never any shooting between Russian and American troops. This “Cold War” was a struggle between the Soviet Union’s communist system of government and America’s democratic system. Because they distrusted each other, both nations spent enormous sums of money building nuclear weapons to use if war began.
During the next year, Kennedy set up a special telephone connection between the President’s office in the White House and the Soviet leader’s office at the Kremlin in Moscow. They hoped this Hot Line would prevent a war from beginning by mistake. In August 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty that outlawed nuclear bomb tests in the air, under water, and in outer space. The treaty did not prevent the two countries from building more weapons, but it did protect the world from the harmful effects of nuclear tests.
While international issues demanded a lot of attention, Kennedy also had to deal with serious problems in the United States. In most southern states, schools, buses, restaurants, and other public places were racially segregated. There were separate schools, separate seats on buses, and separate areas in restaurants for whites and for blacks. State and local laws also prevented black Americans from voting.
Since the 1950s, many people had been working to change these laws. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been jailed for leading protests in Georgia. Kennedy called his wife, Coretta Scott King, and offered his help. Many African Americans then decided to vote for Kennedy.
Civil rights leaders, however, were disappointed with the slow and careful pace of President Kennedy’s efforts to ensure equality for all Americans. Kennedy believed in challenging unfair laws in the courts rather than holding public demonstrations. He believed that demonstrations would anger many white southern members of Congress whose help he needed to pass new laws and approve treaties. Events, however, forced Kennedy to change his views. In May 1961, a group of white and black people ignored segregation laws and traveled together by bus through the south. In several cities, crowds of angry white people beat these “freedom riders” and burned their buses. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother, had to send U.S. marshals to protect the freedom riders. Their actions eventually led to the desegregation of all buses and waiting rooms used for travel between states.
Segregation had not ended everywhere, however. Almost a year later, Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who had promised to support segregation “today, tomorrow, and forever,” would not allow African American students to attend the University of Alabama. After President Kennedy was forced once again to send soldiers to protect students who wanted nothing more than an education, he decided to speak to the nation on television about civil rights. He said Americans had a legal and a moral responsibility to provide equal access to education and guarantee voting rights for all citizens.
. On November 21, 1963, President Kennedy flew to Texas to give several political speeches. The next day, as his car drove slowly past cheering crowds in Dallas, shots rang out. Kennedy was seriously wounded and died a short time later. Within two hours of the shooting, police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald and charged him with the murder. On November 24, a Dallas man, Jack Ruby, shot and killed Oswald before there was a chance to put him on trial. Although Oswald denied that he shot Kennedy, most of the evidence indicates that he really did. To this day, however, many people disagree about the facts of JFK’s assassination. Some people insist that there was a second gunman firing at Kennedy, and that he and Ruby were part of a conspiracy. None of these theories has ever been proven.
President Kennedy’s death caused enormous sadness and grief among all Americans. Most people still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of the murder. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington for the President’s funeral, and millions throughout the world watched it on television.
As the years have gone by and other Presidents have written their chapters in history, John Kennedy’s brief time in office stands out in people’s memories–for his leadership, personality, and accomplishments. Many respect his coolness when faced with difficult decisions–like what to do about the missiles in Cuba. Others admire his ability to inspire people with his articulate speeches. Still others think his compassion and his willingness to fight for new government programs to help the poor, the elderly and the ill were most important. Like all leaders, John Kennedy made mistakes, but he was always hopeful about the future. He believed that people could solve their common problems if they put their country’s interests first and worked together.