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John F. Kennedy: A Short Biography of the 35th President of the United States
Text by Ellen Shea

Eight of the nine Kennedy children pose for a photo in 1928. From youngest to oldest they are: Jean, Robert, Patricia, Eunice, Kathleen, Rosemary, John and Joseph. The  youngest child, Edward, was born in 1932.

     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 famine 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 (for whom he was named), 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 (his family called him "Jack") 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. As a boy and a young man, he traveled to other parts of the United States and to other countries. 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.

Lt. John Kennedy aboard his PT boat in 1943

     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 the crew of thirteen were killed, and the rest, led by Lt. Kennedy, 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 (six years) in the House of Representatives, and in 1952 he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Wedding Day, September 12, 1953

     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.

1960 presidential campaign rally

     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, a senator from Texas, 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.

Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961

     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," (sound) 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." (sound)

     One of President Kennedy's first important actions was creating the Peace Corps. Americans who join the Peace Corps go as volunteers to countries requesting assistance. They serve as teachers and provide help in areas such as farming, health care, and construction.

A scientist explains rocket flight to President Kennedy at Cape Canaveral

     Kennedy also wanted Americans to travel to a more distant destination. In May 1961, after Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to fly into space, Kennedy asked Congress to spend more money on space exploration, with the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

     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.

President Kennedy greets Soviet Premier Khrushchev

     Hoping to build some trust between their countries, President Kennedy and the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev met in June 1961. One topic they discussed was the German city of Berlin. After World War II, Germany had been divided into two countries: West and East Germany. West Germany, like the United States, was a democratic country where people elected their leaders. In East Germany, a communist country, like the Soviet Union, the government owned all the farms and factories and made many decisions without the approval of the people. The city of Berlin was also divided. Though surrounded by East Germany, half of Berlin was part of West Germany. Many East Germans who did not want to live in a communist country had moved to West Berlin. During their meeting Kennedy and Khrushchev strongly disagreed about the future of Berlin. Later that summer the Soviets built a huge wall dividing the two parts of Berlin. For many Americans and the western Europeans, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of communism. In the summer of 1963, JFK visited West Berlin and spoke to a large crowd near the wall . He said that America would support democracy in Berlin and that he looked forward to the wall coming down one day.

This map shows the military sites on the island of Cuba. The land at the top of the map is Florida -- only 90 miles from Cuba

     The Cold War heated up in October 1962, when an American spy plane secretly flew over Cuba and took photos of several military construction sites. The photos showed that the Soviets were building nuclear missile launchers in Cuba. Cuba's communist government, led by Fidel Castro, was very friendly with the Soviet Union. President Kennedy faced a very difficult decision. Should he ignore the missiles even though they were very close to the United States? Should he use force to remove the missiles--even at the risk of starting a nuclear war? What other actions could he take?

President Kennedy and his advisers meet at the White House to discuss the missiles in Cuba

     Because he did not want to let Cuba and the Soviet Union know that he knew about the missiles, Kennedy met in secret with his advisers for several days to discuss the problem. After many long and difficult meetings, he decided to place a naval blockade, or ring of ships, around Cuba to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. Several days later, Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, agreed to remove the missiles and bring them back to the Soviet Union. In exchange, the United States promised not to invade Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis had nearly caused a nuclear war. Many people around the world were impressed with John Kennedy's leadership during these tense thirteen days.

     During the next year, Kennedy and Khrushchev set up a "Hot Line," 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 (sound) 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 (sound). Kennedy also asked the American people to think more about making peace with the Soviet Union. "We all inhabit this small planet," he said. "We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future, and we are all mortal."

President Kennedy meets with leaders of the civil rights movement

     While international issues demanded a lot of attention, Kennedy also had to deal with serious problems here 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--black and white--had been working to change these laws. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most famous leaders of the civil rights movement, 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.

John and Robert Kennedy

     In September 1962, the nation faced the threat of violence in the State of Mississippi. James Meredith, an African American and an Air Force veteran, applied and was admitted to the University of Mississippi. However, when he arrived on campus, university officials would not let him go to class because he was black. Both John and Robert Kennedy had long talks over the telephone with the Mississippi governor, Ross Barnett. However, they failed to convince Barnett to allow James Meredith to attend classes. In order to enforce the Constitution and to protect Meredith, Kennedy ordered the National Guard and federal marshals to the University. After a riot in which two people died and dozens were injured, Meredith registered for classes and segregation ended at the University of Mississippi.

     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.

President and Mrs. Kennedy greet guests at the White House

     In addition to all the problems and challenges of being President, John Kennedy also had to fulfill the role of our nation's head of state. He and his wife Jacqueline hosted dinners and parties in Washington for the leaders of other nations. They also traveled to Latin America and Europe. Because Mrs. Kennedy believed that the nation's capital should be the center for arts and culture as well as the center of government and law, she invited many musicians, writers, and dancers to the White House to perform.

     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, for example, that there was a second gunman firing at Kennedy, and that he and Ruby were part of a conspiracy. None of these theories have 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 eloquent 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 optimistic about the future. He believed that people could solve their common problems if they put their country's interests first and worked together.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library - Columbia Point - Boston, Massachusetts 02125
Tel: 1-877-616-4599
Fax: 617-929-4538

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library Foundation - Columbia Point - Boston, Massachusetts 02125
Tel: 617-929-1200
Fax: 617-436-3395


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Page created May 2, 1996 updated: December 12, 2002

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