The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), the thirty-fifth president of the United States and the second son of Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, May 29, 1917. The Kennedy household teemed with activity – all nine children were encouraged to be athletic and to play to win. At dinner, both parents expected their children to be well informed, to participate in the political debates that often occurred during dinner, and to accept the ethos of noblesse oblige and a "life of constant competition." JFK's battles were also physical – scarlet fever before he was three, intense back pain caused by a difference in the length of his legs, and a variety of illnesses which forced him to leave Princeton during his freshman year. A year later, he hurt his back trying out for the freshman football team at Harvard, where he had enrolled after leaving Princeton. When he failed to make the team, he joined the varsity swimming team instead.

Despite his lackadaisical attitude toward his studies, JFK earned second highest honors for his thesis "Appeasement at Munich," in which he disagreed with his father, who had arranged the interviews JFK used to construct his argument, which posited that while Chamberlain had no choice but to negotiate with Hitler, Churchill was also correct in arguing that American aid was crucial to Britain's survival. With the encouragement of Arthur Krock and his father's assistance, the thesis, published under the title, Why England Slept, became a bestseller in England and in America, selling 80,000 copies in nine months. He donated the royalties from the British edition to the campaign to rebuild war-scarred Plymouth and enrolled in the London School of Economics.

John Kennedy planned to attend Yale Law School, but when American entry into World War II seemed imminent, he exercised to strengthen his back, enlisted in the Navy, and requested a commission to command a PT boat. On August 2, 1943, a Japanese destroyer rammed JFK's boat, which was patrolling the Solomon Islands protecting American transports against Japanese attacks, and split the PT 109 in half, killing two of his thirteen-man crew. One survivor was so badly burned that JFK had to tow him to safety by holding the crewman's life jacket strap in his teeth while he swam five hours to reach a small island. Two days later, they abandoned it for another, larger island, where they stayed for five days before they were rescued. He then returned to sea as commander of a new PT boat only to have his second tour cut short by malaria and severe back pain. Determined to observe as much as he could, JFK spent the remainder of the war as a Hearst correspondent for the 1945 British elections and the Potsdam conference. Kennedy's heroic actions attracted national attention, especially after John Hersey chronicled the rescue for the New Yorker and the Reader's Digest syndicated an abridged version. Yet, when he returned to Massachusetts and began to give lectures around the state, he refused to capitalize on his fame, saying simply, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."

In 1946, JFK was one of eleven candidates seeking to represent Massachusetts' Eleventh District, an enclave of Irish and Italian voters. He campaigned as a New Deal Democrat and, in a direct reference to Boston Mayor James Curley, promised that he would "maintain integrity and virtue in public office." As a young congressman, he usually followed the lead of House Democrats. Yet his few differences were stark and angered leadership and key constituencies. He opposed clemency for Curley (which Truman supported), a veteran's pension bill supported by the American Legion, and supported the Mundt-Nixon bill, which liberals considered an anathema. Although he voted against Taft-Hartley, he wrote a minority opinion as critical of labor as it was of management. He also blamed the communist victory in China on Truman's inept foreign policy decisions.

In 1953, he joined the Senate at the age of thirty-five, after defeating incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge by 70,000 votes in a state Eisenhower carried by three times that margin. Having set his sights on the presidency, Kennedy collaborated with but never led his colleagues. His prominence came from his national exposure at the 1956 Democratic convention when he narrated the convention film, placed Stevenson's name in nomination, and narrowly lost the vice-presidential nomination. He then became one of the most sought after speakers among the Senators and a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows. As he did in the House, Kennedy usually sided with the liberal Democratic voting bloc, but angered his colleagues by opposing increased farm price supports and voting for the jury trial amendment to the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He became an expert on labor law and became a frequent target of criticism by both the National Association of Manufacturers and the AFL-CIO. In foreign policy, he supported economic aid to India, supported Algerian independence from France, and argued that economic aid should be used to lessen Russia's grip on its satellites.

In 1960, Kennedy organized his presidential campaign around the themes, "Get America Moving Again" and "To Seek A New Frontier." The nation was prosperous and at peace and the outgoing Eisenhower still commanded great affection from a majority of voters. While Kennedy tried to capitalize on Sputnik by campaigning to bridge "the missile gap" we had with the Soviets, his Catholicism became just as important an issue to the voters. After four nationally televised debates, he defeated Richard Nixon in the closest presidential election since 1888 and became the youngest man ever elected president.

Even though Nixon carried more states than JFK and the Republicans controlled Congress, President Kennedy refused to accept that he did not have a clear mandate to lead, declaring, "the margin is narrow, but the responsibility is clear." In the shortest inaugural address since FDR's 1933 speech, JFK issued a clarion call for citizen engagement and public service. His domestic priority was the economy. He reduced personal and corporate taxes, increased spending on space and defense projects, and refused to increase federal funding of social programs. He based his foreign policy on the concept of counterinsurgency, arguing that the threat to America was the Third World (Cuba, Latin America, and Vietnam). He increased funding for missile development, increased numbers of all military branches, and urged the creation of a new, more mobile military (the Green Berets). In his one thousand days as president, he faced three major crises: The Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the emergence of a powerful civil rights movement. In the process, he brought a new sardonic wit, intellectual charm, and a young, vibrant family to the White House.

President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963, while driving past Dealy Plaza in a open-top limousine. His death stunned the nation, which watched his death, the murder of the man arrested for his murder, and his funeral on television.

Sources: Carl Brauer, "John F. Kennedy," in Henry F. Graff, ed., The Presidents: A Reference History, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996), pp. 479-485; Fletcher Knebel, "Pulitzer Prize Entry: John F. Kennedy" in Eric Sevareid, ed., Candidates 1960: Behind the Headlines in the Presidential Race, (New York: Basic Books, 1959), pp. 181-215; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), passim.

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .

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