John F. Kennedy
|35th President of the United States|
January 20, 1961 – November 22, 1963
|Vice President||Lyndon B. Johnson|
|Preceded by||Dwight D. Eisenhower|
|Succeeded by||Lyndon B. Johnson|
|United States Senator from Massachusetts|
January 3, 1953 – December 22, 1960
|Preceded by||Henry Cabot Lodge|
|Succeeded by||Benjamin Smith|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts’s 11th District
January 3, 1947 – January 3, 1953
|Preceded by||James Curley|
|Succeeded by||Tip O’Neill|
|Born||John Fitzgerald Kennedy
May 29, 1917
Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||November 22, 1963 (aged 46)
Dallas, Texas, U.S.
|Resting place||Arlington National Cemetery
|Relations||Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (father)
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (mother)
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (brother)
Rosemary Kennedy (sister)
Kathleen Agnes Kennedy (sister)
Eunice Kennedy (sister)
Patricia Kennedy (sister)
Robert F. Kennedy (brother)
Jean Kennedy (sister)
Edward Moore Kennedy (brother)
|Alma mater||Harvard College|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Navy|
|Years of service||1941–1945|
|Unit||Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109|
John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963), often referred to by his initials JFK, was the 35th President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his death in 1963.
After military service as commander of the Motor Torpedo Boats PT-109 and PT-59 during World War II in the South Pacific, Kennedy represented Massachusetts’ 11th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953 as a Democrat. Thereafter, he served in the U.S. Senate from 1953 until 1960. Kennedy defeated Vice President and Republican candidate Richard Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential election. At 43 years of age, he is the youngest to have been elected to the office, the second-youngest President (after Theodore Roosevelt), and the first person born in the 20th century to serve as president. A Catholic, Kennedy is the only non-Protestant president, and is the only president to have won a Pulitzer Prize. Events during his presidency included the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Space Race, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, and early stages of the Vietnam War. Therein, Kennedy increased the number of military advisers, special operation forces, and helicopters in an effort to curb the spread of communism in South East Asia. The Kennedy administration adopted the policy of the Strategic Hamlet Program which was implemented by the South Vietnamese government. It involved certain forced relocation, village internment, and segregation of rural South Vietnamese from the northern and southern communist insurgents.
Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of the crime, but he was shot and killed by Jack Ruby two days later, before a trial could take place. The FBI and the Warren Commission officially concluded that Oswald was the lone assassin. However, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that those investigations were flawed and that Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy. Kennedy’s controversial Department of Defense TFX fighter bomber program led to a Congressional investigation that lasted from 1963 to 1970. Since the 1960s information concerning Kennedy’s private life has come to light. Details of Kennedy’s health problems in which he struggled have become better known, especially since the 1990s. Although initially kept secret from the general public, reports of Kennedy’s philandering have garnered much press. Kennedy ranks highly in public opinion ratings of U.S. presidents.
Early Life and Education
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born at 83 Beals Street in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917, the second son of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and Rose Fitzgerald; Rose was the eldest child of John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a prominent Boston political figure who was the city’s mayor and a three-term member of Congress. Kennedy’s ancestry was predominantly Irish with all eight of his great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland. Kennedy lived in Brookline for ten years and attended Edward Devotion School, Noble and Greenough Lower School, and the Dexter School, through 4th grade. In 1927, the family moved to 5040 Independence Avenue in Riverdale, Bronx, New York City; two years later, they moved to 294 Pondfield Road in Bronxville, New York, where Kennedy was a member of Scout Troop 2. Kennedy spent summers with his family at their home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, and Christmas and Easter holidays with his family at their winter home in Palm Beach, Florida. For the 5th through 7th grade, Kennedy attended Riverdale Country School, a private school for boys. For 8th grade in September 1930, the 13-year old Kennedy attended Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut. In late April 1931, he required an appendectomy, after which he withdrew from Canterbury and recuperated at home.
In September 1931, Kennedy was sent to The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, for his 9th through 12th grade years. His older brother, Joe Jr., had already been at Choate for two years, a football star and leading student. Jack spent his first years at Choate in his brother’s shadow, and compensated for this with rebellious behavior that attracted a coterie. Their most notorious stunt was to explode a toilet seat with a powerful firecracker. In the ensuing chapel assembly, the strict headmaster, George St. John, brandished the toilet seat and spoke of certain “muckers” who would “spit in our sea”. The defiant Jack Kennedy took the cue and named his group “The Muckers Club”, which included roommate and friend Kirk LeMoyne “Lem” Billings. While at Choate, Kennedy was beset by health problems that culminated in 1934 with his emergency hospitalization at Yale – New Haven Hospital. In June 1934 he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and diagnosed with colitis. Kennedy graduated from Choate in June 1935. For the school yearbook, of which he had been business manager, Kennedy was voted the “most likely to succeed”.
In September 1935, he made his first trip abroad, with his parents and sister Kathleen, to London, with the intent of studying under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics (LSE), as his older brother Joe had done. Ill health forced his return to America in October 1935, when he enrolled late and spent six weeks at Princeton University. He was then hospitalized for observation at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. He convalesced further at the Kennedy winter home in Palm Beach, then spent the spring of 1936 (along with his older brother Joe) working as a ranch hand on the 40,000 acres (160 km2) “Jay Six” cattle ranch outside Benson, Arizona. It is reported that ranchman Jack Speiden worked both brothers “very hard”.
In September 1936, Kennedy enrolled at Harvard College, where he produced that year’s annual “Freshman Smoker”, called by a reviewer “an elaborate entertainment, which included in its cast outstanding personalities of the radio, screen and sports world”. He tried out for the football, golf, and swim teams and earned a spot on the varsity swim team. In July 1937 Kennedy sailed to France—bringing his convertible—and spent ten weeks driving through Europe with Billings. In June 1938 Kennedy sailed overseas with his father and brother Joe to work with his father, who was then Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, at the American embassy in London. In 1939 Kennedy toured Europe, the Soviet Union, the Balkans, and the Middle East in preparation for his Harvard senior honors thesis. He then went to Czechoslovakia and Germany before returning to London on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. On September 3, 1939, the family was in the House of Commons for speeches endorsing the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on Germany. Kennedy was sent as his father’s representative to help with arrangements for American survivors of the SS Athenia, before flying back to the U.S. from Foynes, Ireland, to Port Washington, New York on his first transatlantic flight.
As an upperclassman at Harvard, Kennedy became a more serious student and developed an interest in political philosophy. In his junior year he made the Dean’s List. In 1940 Kennedy completed his thesis, “Appeasement in Munich”, about British participation in the Munich Agreement. The thesis became a bestseller under the title Why England Slept. He graduated from Harvard College with a Bachelor of Science cum laude in international affairs in 1940. Kennedy enrolled and audited classes at the Stanford Graduate School of Business that fall. In early 1941, he helped his father write a memoir of his three years as an American ambassador and then traveled throughout South America.
In September 1941, after medical disqualification by the Army for his chronic lower back problems, Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy, with the influence of the director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, former naval attaché to Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy was an ensign serving in the office of the Secretary of the Navy when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. He attended the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps and Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Training Center, was assigned duty in Panama and later in the Pacific theater, where he earned the rank of lieutenant, commanding a patrol torpedo (PT) boat.
On August 2, 1943, Kennedy’s boat, PT-109, along with PT-162 and PT-169, were performing nighttime patrols near New Georgia in the Solomon Islands, when PT-109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. Kennedy gathered his surviving crew members together in the water around the wreckage, to vote on whether to “fight or surrender”. Kennedy stated, “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.” Shunning surrender, the men swam towards a small island. Kennedy, despite re-injury to his back in the collision, towed a badly burned crewman through the water with a life jacket strap clenched between his teeth. He towed the wounded man to the island, and later to a second island, from where his crew was subsequently rescued. For these actions, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal with the following citation:
For extremely heroic conduct as Commanding Officer of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 following the collision and sinking of that vessel in the Pacific War Theater on August 1–2, 1943. Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant (then Lieutenant, Junior Grade) Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore. His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
In October 1943, Kennedy took command of a PT boat converted into a gun boat, PT-59, which took part in a Marine rescue on Choiseul Island that November. Kennedy then left PT-59, and returned to the United States in early January 1944. After receiving treatment for his back injury, he was released from active duty in late 1944. Kennedy was honorably discharged in early 1945, just prior to Japan’s surrender. Kennedy’s other decorations in World War II included the Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, and the World War II Victory Medal. When later asked how he became a war hero, Kennedy joked: “It was easy. They cut my PT boat in half.”
In April 1945, Kennedy’s father, a friend of William Randolph Hearst, arranged a position for his son as a special correspondent for Hearst Newspapers; the assignment kept Kennedy’s name in the public eye and “expose[d] him to journalism as a possible career.” He worked as a correspondent that May, covering the Potsdam Conference and other events.
House of Representatives
While Kennedy was still serving, his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., was killed in action on August 12, 1944, while part of Operation Aphrodite. Since Joe Jr. had been the family’s political standard-bearer, the task now fell to John.
In 1946, U.S. Representative James Michael Curley vacated his seat in the strongly Democratic 11th Congressional district in Massachusetts—at Joe’s urging—to become mayor of Boston. Kennedy ran for the seat, beating his Republican opponent by a large margin. He served as a congressman for six years.
In the 1952 election, he defeated incumbent Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. for the U.S. Senate seat. The following year he was married to Jacqueline.
Kennedy underwent several spinal operations over the following two years. Often absent from the Senate, he was at times critically ill and received Catholic last rites. During his convalescence in 1956, he published Profiles in Courage, a book about U.S. Senators who risked their careers for their personal beliefs, and which received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957. Rumors that this work was co-authored by his close adviser and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, were confirmed in Sorensen’s 2008 autobiography. In the book, Kennedy supported the conservative Southern view that Reconstruction was corrupt.
At the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy was nominated for Vice President on a ticket with presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, but finished second in the balloting to Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Kennedy received national exposure from that episode; his father thought it just as well that his son lost, due to the political debility of his Catholicism and the strength of the Eisenhower ticket.
One of the matters demanding Kennedy’s attention in the Senate was President Eisenhower’s bill for the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Kennedy cast a procedural vote on this, which was considered by some as an appeasement of Southern Democratic opponents of the bill. Kennedy did vote for Title III of the act, which would have given the Attorney General powers to enjoin, but Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson agreed to let the provision die as a compromise measure. Kennedy also voted for Title IV, termed the “Jury Trial Amendment”. Many civil rights advocates at the time criticized that vote as one which would weaken the act. A final compromise bill, which Kennedy supported, was passed in September 1957. In 1958, Kennedy was re-elected to a second term in the Senate, defeating his Republican opponent, Boston lawyer Vincent J. Celeste, by a wide margin. It was during his re-election campaign that Kennedy’s press secretary at this time Robert E Thompson, put together a film entitled The U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy Story, which exhibited a day in the life of the Senator and showcased his family life as well as the inner-workings of his office. It is the most comprehensive film produced about Kennedy up to that time.
Senator Joseph McCarthy was a friend of the Kennedy family; Joseph Kennedy, Sr. was a leading McCarthy supporter, Robert F. Kennedy worked for McCarthy’s subcommittee, and McCarthy dated Patricia Kennedy. In 1954, when the Senate voted to censure McCarthy, Kennedy drafted a speech supporting the censure. The speech was not delivered, because he was in the hospital. Though absent, he could have participated procedurally by “pairing” his vote against that of another senator, but did not do so. He never indicated how he would have voted, but the episode damaged Kennedy’s support among members of the liberal community, including Eleanor Roosevelt, in the 1956 and 1960 elections.
1960 Presidential Election
On January 2, 1960, Kennedy initiated his campaign for President in the Democratic primary election, where he faced challenges from Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Kennedy defeated Humphrey in Wisconsin and West Virginia, Morse in Maryland and Oregon, as well as from token opposition (often write-in candidates) in New Hampshire, Indiana, and Nebraska. Kennedy visited a coal mine in West Virginia; most miners and others in that predominantly conservative, Protestant state were quite wary of Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism. His victory in West Virginia confirmed his broad popular appeal. At the Democratic Convention, he gave his well-known “New Frontier” speech, saying: “For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won—and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier … But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”
With Humphrey and Morse eliminated, Kennedy’s main opponent at the Los Angeles convention was Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Kennedy overcame this formal challenge as well as informal ones from Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956, Stuart Symington, and several favorite sons, and on July 13 the Democratic convention nominated Kennedy as its candidate. Kennedy asked Johnson to be his Vice Presidential candidate, despite opposition from many liberal delegates and Kennedy’s own staff, including his brother, Robert. He needed Johnson’s strength in the South to win what was considered likely to be the closest election since 1916. Major issues included how to get the economy moving again, Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism, Cuba, and whether the Soviet space and missile programs had surpassed those of the U.S. To address fears that his being Catholic would impact his decision-making, he famously told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, “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.” Kennedy questioned rhetorically whether one-quarter of Americans were relegated to second-class citizenship just because they were Catholic, and once stated that, “No one asked me my religion [serving the Navy] in the South Pacific.”
In September and October, Kennedy appeared with Republican candidate Richard Nixon, then Vice President, in the first televised U.S. presidential debates in U.S. history. During these programs, Nixon, with a sore injured leg and his “five o’clock shadow“, looked tense, uncomfortable, and perspiring, while Kennedy, choosing to avail himself of makeup services, appeared relaxed, leading the huge television audience to favor Kennedy as the winner. Radio listeners either thought Nixon had won or that the debates were a draw. The debates are now considered a milestone in American political history—the point at which the medium of television began to play a dominant role in politics.
Kennedy’s campaign gained momentum after the first debate, and he pulled slightly ahead of Nixon in most polls. On November 8, Kennedy defeated Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections of the 20th century. In the national popular vote Kennedy led Nixon by just two-tenths of one percent (49.7% to 49.5%), while in the Electoral College he won 303 votes to Nixon’s 219 (269 were needed to win). Another 14 electors from Mississippi and Alabama refused to support Kennedy because of his support for the civil rights movement; they voted for Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, as did the elector from Oklahoma. Kennedy was the youngest man elected president, succeeding Eisenhower, who was then the oldest (Ronald Reagan surpassed Eisenhower as the oldest president in 1981).
John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President at noon on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address he spoke of the need for all Americans to be active citizens, famously saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He 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”. He added: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” In closing, he expanded on his desire for greater internationalism: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”
The address reflected Kennedy’s confidence that his administration would chart a historically significant course in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. The contrast between this optimistic vision and the pressures of managing daily political realities at home and abroad would be one of the main tensions running through the early years of his administration.
Kennedy brought to the White House a stark contrast in organization compared to the decision making structure of the former general, Eisenhower; and he wasted no time in dismantling Eisenhower’s methods. Kennedy preferred the organizational structure of a wheel, with all the spokes leading to the president. He was ready and willing to make the increased number of quick decisions required in such an environment. He selected a mixture of experienced and inexperienced people to serve in his cabinet. “We can learn our jobs together”, he stated. There were a couple instances where the president got ahead of himself, as when he announced in a cabinet meeting, without prior notice, that Edward Lansdale would be Ambassador to South Vietnam, a decision which Secretary of State Rusk later had Kennedy alter. There was also the case of Harris Wofford, who was summoned to the White House for swearing in without knowing which position he was to assume.
Much to the chagrin of his economic advisors, who wanted him to reduce taxes, he quickly agreed to a balanced budget pledge. This was needed in exchange for votes to expand the membership of the House Rules Committee in order to give the Democrats a majority in setting the legislative agenda. The president focused on immediate and specific issues facing the administration, and quickly voiced his impatience with pondering of deeper meanings. Deputy national security advisor Walt Whitman Rostow once began a diatribe about the growth of communism, and Kennedy abruptly cut him off, asking, “What do you want me to do about that today?”
In May 1961, the press ran articles that Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had requested an oil executive to solicit $100 contributions at a fund raiser from oil and gasoline interests. Udall demanded that his name that was used on material to solicit funding be withdrawn. A week earlier, Kennedy had proposed that Congress tighten the conflict of interest laws. At a press conference, Kennedy faulted the then current campaign finance laws, rather than Udall. Kennedy stated he had talked with Udall and was satisfied with his explanation. Kennedy stated that anyone who contributed to a campaign fund should not expect any favors in return. Udall denied any wrongdoing and stated that the oil executive misunderstood his intentions.
President Kennedy’s foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union, manifested by proxy contests in the early stage of the Cold War. In 1961, Kennedy anxiously anticipated a summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The President started off on the wrong foot by reacting aggressively to a routine Khrushchev speech on Cold War confrontation in early 1961. The speech was intended for domestic audiences in the Soviet Union, but Kennedy interpreted it as a personal challenge. His mistake helped raise tensions going into the Vienna Summit of June 1961. On the way to the summit, Kennedy stopped in Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle, who advised Kennedy to ignore Khrushchev’s abrasive style. The French president was nationalistic and disdainful of the United States’ presumed influence in Europe. Nevertheless de Gaulle was quite impressed with the young president and his family. Kennedy picked up on this in his speech in Paris, saying he would be remembered as “the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris.”
On June 4, 1961, the president met with Khrushchev in Vienna and left the meetings angry and disappointed that he had allowed the Premier to bully him, despite the warnings he had received. Khrushchev, for his part, was impressed with the president’s intelligence, but thought him weak. Kennedy did succeed in conveying the bottom line to Khrushchev on the most sensitive issue before them, a proposed treaty between Moscow and East Berlin. He made it clear that any such treaty which interfered with U.S access rights in West Berlin would be regarded as an act of war.
Shortly after the president returned home, the U.S.S.R. announced its intention to sign a treaty with East Berlin, abrogating any third-party occupation rights in either sector of the city. Kennedy, depressed and angry, assumed his only option was to prepare the country for nuclear war, which he personally thought had a one in five chance of occurring.
In the weeks immediately after the Vienna summit, more than 20,000 people fled from East Berlin to the western sector in reaction to statements from the USSR. Kennedy began intensive meetings on the Berlin issue, where Dean Acheson took the lead in recommending a military buildup alongside NATO allies. In a July 1961 speech, Kennedy announced his decision to add $3.25 billion to the defense budget, along with over 200,000 additional troops, saying an attack on West Berlin would be taken as an attack on the U.S. The speech received an 85% approval rating. The following month, the Soviet Union and East Berlin began blocking any further passage of East Berliners into West Berlin and erected barbed wire fences across the city, which were quickly upgraded to the Berlin Wall. Kennedy’s initial reaction was to ignore this, as long as free access from West to East Berlin continued. This course was altered when it was learned that the West Berliners had lost confidence in the defense of their position by the United States. Kennedy sent Vice President Johnson, along with a host of military personnel, in convoy through West Germany, including Soviet armed checkpoints, to demonstrate the continued commitment of the U.S. to West Berlin.
Kennedy gave a speech at Saint Anselm College on May 5, 1960, regarding America’s conduct in the emerging Cold War. The address detailed how American foreign policy should be conducted towards African nations, noting a hint of support for modern African nationalism by saying that “For we, too, founded a new nation on revolt from colonial rule”.
Cuba and the Bay of Pigs Invasion
The prior Eisenhower administration had created a plan to overthrow the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba. The plan, led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with help from the U.S. military, was for an invasion of Cuba by a counter-revolutionary insurgency composed of U.S.-trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles led by CIA paramilitary officers. The intention was to invade Cuba and instigate an uprising among the Cuban people in hopes of removing Castro from power. On April 17, 1961, Kennedy ordered what became known as the “Bay of Pigs Invasion”: 1,500 U.S.-trained Cubans, called “Brigade 2506”, landed on the island. No U.S. air support was provided. Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, later stated that they thought the president would authorize any action required for success once the troops were on the ground. By April 19, 1961, the Cuban government had captured or killed the invading exiles, and Kennedy was forced to negotiate for the release of the 1,189 survivors. After twenty months, Cuba released the captured exiles in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine. The incident made Castro wary of the U.S. and led him to believe another invasion would occur. According to biographer Richard Reeves, Kennedy primarily focused on the political repercussions of the plan rather than the military considerations; when it failed, he was convinced the plan was a setup to make him look bad. But he took responsibility for the failure, saying, “… We got a big kick in the leg and we deserved it. But maybe we’ll learn something from it.”
In late 1961, the White House formed the “Special Group (Augmented)”, headed by Robert Kennedy and including Edward Lansdale, Secretary Robert McNamara, and others. The group’s objective—to overthrow Castro via espionage, sabotage, and other covert tactics—was never pursued.
Cuban Missile Crisis
On October 14, 1962, CIA U-2 spy planes took photographs of intermediate-range ballistic missile sites being built in Cuba by the Soviets. The photos were shown to Kennedy on October 16; a consensus was reached that the missiles were offensive in nature and thus posed an immediate nuclear threat. Kennedy faced a dilemma: if the U.S. attacked the sites, it might lead to nuclear war with the U.S.S.R., but if the U.S. did nothing, it would be faced with the increased threat from close range nuclear weapons. The U.S. would as well appear to the world as less committed to the defense of the hemisphere. On a personal level, Kennedy needed to show resolve in reaction to Khrushchev, especially after the Vienna summit.
More than a third of the members of the National Security Council (NSC) favored an unannounced air assault on the missile sites, but for some of them this conjured up an image of “Pearl Harbor in reverse”. There was as well some reaction from the international community (asked in confidence) that the assault plan was an overreaction in light of U.S. missiles that had been placed in Turkey by Eisenhower. And there could be no assurance that the assault would be 100% effective. In concurrence with a majority vote of the NSC, Kennedy decided on a naval quarantine. On October 22 he dispatched a message to Khrushchev and announced the decision on TV.
The U.S. Navy would stop and inspect all Soviet ships arriving off Cuba, beginning October 24. The Organization of American States gave unanimous support to the removal of the missiles. The president exchanged two sets of letters with Khrushchev, to no avail. United Nations (UN) Secretary General U Thant requested both parties reverse their decisions and enter a cooling off period. Khrushchev said yes, but Kennedy said no. One Soviet-flagged ship was stopped and boarded. On October 28 Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites subject to UN inspections. The U.S. publicly promised never to invade Cuba and privately agreed to remove its missiles in Turkey, which were by then obsolete and had been supplanted by submarines equipped with UGM-27 Polaris missiles. This crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any point before or since. In the end, “the humanity” of the two men prevailed. The crisis improved the image of American willpower and the president’s credibility. His approval rating increased from 66% to 77% immediately thereafter.
Latin America and Communism
Arguing that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable,” Kennedy sought to contain communism in Latin America by establishing the Alliance for Progress, which sent aid to troubled countries and sought greater human rights standards in the region. He worked closely with Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Muñoz Marín for the development of the Alliance of Progress, and began working towards the autonomy of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
When the president took office the Eisenhower administration, through the CIA, had begun formulating plans for the assassination of Castro in Cuba and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Kennedy privately instructed the CIA that any such planning must include plausible deniability by the U.S. His public position was in opposition. In June 1961 the Dominican Republic’s leader was assassinated; in the days following the event, Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles led a cautious reaction by the nation. Robert Kennedy, who saw an opportunity for the U.S., called Bowles “a gutless bastard” to his face.
As one of his first presidential acts, Kennedy asked Congress to create the Peace Corps. His brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was the first director. Through this program, Americans volunteer to help underdeveloped nations in areas such as education, farming, health care, and construction. The organization grew to 5,000 members by March 1963 and 10,000 the following year. Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries.
When briefing Kennedy, Eisenhower emphasized that the communist threat in Southeast Asia required priority; Eisenhower considered Laos to be “the cork in the bottle” in regards to the regional threat. In March 1961, Kennedy voiced a change in policy from supporting a “free” Laos to a “neutral” Laos, indicating privately that Vietnam, and not Laos, should be deemed America’s tripwire for communism’s spread in the area. In May 1961 he dispatched Lyndon Johnson to meet with South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. Johnson assured Diem more aid in molding a fighting force that could resist the communists. Kennedy announced a change of policy from support to partnership with Diem in defeat of communism in South Vietnam.
Kennedy initially followed Eisenhower’s lead, using limited military action to fight the communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh. Kennedy continued policies that provided political, economic, and military support to the South Vietnamese government. Late in 1961 the Viet Cong began assuming a predominant presence, initially seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh. Kennedy increased the number of helicopters, military advisors, and undeclared U.S. Special Forces in the area, but he was reluctant to order a full-scale deployment of troops. In late 1961, President Kennedy sent Roger Hilsman, then director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to assess the situation in Vietnam. There Hilsman met Sir Robert Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam and the concept of the Strategic Hamlet Program was formed. It was approved by Kennedy and South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. It was implemented in early 1962 and involved some forced relocation, village internment, and segregation of rural South Vietnamese into new communities where the peasantry would be isolated from Communist insurgents. It was hoped these new communities would provide security for the peasants and strengthen the tie between them and the central government. However, by November 1963 the program waned and officially ended in 1964.
In early 1962, Kennedy formally authorized escalated involvement when he signed the “National Security Action Memorandum – Subversive Insurgency (War of Liberation)”. Secretary of State Dean Rusk voiced strong support for U.S. involvement. “Operation Ranch Hand“, a large-scale aerial defoliation effort, began on the roadsides of South Vietnam.
In April 1963, Kennedy assessed the situation in Vietnam: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the communists and get the American people to re-elect me”. Kennedy faced a crisis in Vietnam by July; despite increased U.S. support, the South Vietnamese military was only marginally effective against pro-communist Viet Cong forces.
On August 21, just as the new U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge arrived, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu ordered South Vietnam forces, funded and trained by the CIA, to quell Buddhist demonstrations. The crackdowns heightened expectations of a coup d’état to remove Diem with (or perhaps by) his brother, Nhu. Lodge was instructed to try to get Diem and Nhu to step down and leave the country. Diem would not listen to Lodge.Cable 243 (DEPTEL 243), dated August 24, followed, declaring Washington would no longer tolerate Nhu’s actions, and Lodge was ordered to pressure Diem to remove Nhu. If Diem refused, the Americans would explore alternative leadership. Lodge stated that the only workable option was to get the South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Diem and Nhu, as originally planned. At week’s end, Kennedy learned from Lodge that the Diem government might, due to France’s assistance to Nhu, be dealing secretly with the communists—and might ask the Americans to leave; orders were sent to Saigon and throughout Washington to “destroy all coup cables”. At the same time, the first formal anti-Vietnam war sentiment was expressed by U.S. clergy from the Ministers’ Vietnam Committee.
A White House meeting in September was indicative of the very different ongoing appraisals; the President was given updated assessments after personal inspections on the ground by the Department of Defense (General Victor Krulak) and the State Department (Joseph Mendenhall). Krulak said the military fight against the communists was progressing and being won, while Mendenhall stated that the country was civilly being lost to any U.S. influence. Kennedy reacted, saying, “Did you two gentlemen visit the same country?” The president was unaware the two men were at such odds that they had not spoken to each other on the return flight.
In October 1963, the president appointed Defense Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell D. Taylor to a Vietnam mission in another effort to synchronize the information and formulation of policy. The objective of the McNamara Taylor mission “emphasized the importance of getting to the bottom of the differences in reporting from U.S. representatives in Vietnam”. In meetings with McNamara, Taylor, and Lodge, Diem again refused to agree to governing measures insisted upon by the U.S., helping to dispel McNamara’s previous optimism about Diem. Taylor and McNamara were also enlightened by Vietnam’s Vice President, Nguyen Ngoc Tho (choice of many to succeed Diem should a coup occur), who in detailed terms obliterated Taylor’s information that the military was succeeding in the countryside. At Kennedy’s insistence, the mission report contained a recommended schedule for troop withdrawals: 1,000 by year’s end and complete withdrawal in 1965, something the NSC considered a strategic fantasy. The final report declared that the military was making progress, that the increasingly unpopular Diem-led government was not vulnerable to a coup, and that an assassination of Diem or Nhu was a possibility.
In late October, intelligence wires again reported that a coup against the Diem government was afoot. The source, Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh (also known as “Big Minh”), wanted to know the U.S. position. Kennedy instructed Lodge to offer covert assistance to the coup, excluding assassination, and to ensure deniability by the U.S. Later that month, as the coup became imminent, Kennedy ordered all cables routed through him. A policy of “control and cut out” was initiated to insure presidential control of U.S. responses, while cutting him out of the paper trail. On November 1, 1963, South Vietnamese generals, led by “Big Minh”, overthrew the Diem government, arresting and then killing Diem and Nhu. Kennedy was shocked by the deaths. He found out afterwards that Minh had asked the CIA field office to secure safe passage out of the country for Diem and Nhu, but was told 24 hours was needed to get a plane. Minh responded that he could not hold them that long. News of the coup initially led to renewed confidence—both in America and in South Vietnam—that the war might be won. McGeorge Bundy drafted a National Security Action Memo to present to Kennedy upon his return from Dallas. It reiterated the resolve to fight communism in Vietnam, with increasing military and economic aid and expansion of operations into Laos and Cambodia. Before leaving for Dallas, Kennedy told Michael Forrestal that “after the first of the year … [he wanted] an in depth study of every possible option, including how to get out of there … to review this whole thing from the bottom to the top”. When asked what he thought the president meant, Forrestal said, “it was devil’s advocate stuff.”
Historians disagree on whether Vietnam would have escalated had Kennedy survived and been re-elected in 1964. Fueling the debate are statements made by Secretary of Defense McNamara in the film “The Fog of War” that Kennedy was strongly considering pulling out of Vietnam after the 1964 election. The film also contains a tape recording of Lyndon Johnson stating that Kennedy was planning to withdraw, a position that Johnson disagreed with. Kennedy had signed National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11, which ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 military personnel by the end of the year. Such an action would have been a policy reversal, but Kennedy was moving in a less hawkish direction since his acclaimed speech about world peace at American University on June 10, 1963.
When Robert Kennedy was asked in 1964 what his brother would have done if the South Vietnamese had been on the brink of defeat, he replied, “We’d face that when we came to it.” At the time of Kennedy’s death, no final policy decision had been made as to Vietnam. U.S. involvement in the region escalated until Lyndon Johnson, his successor, directly deployed regular U.S. military forces for fighting the Vietnam War. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson passed NSAM 273 on November 26, 1963. It reversed Kennedy’s decision to withdraw 1,000 troops, and reaffirmed the policy of assistance to the South Vietnamese.
American University Speech
On June 10, 1963, Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., “to discuss a topic on which too often ignorance abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived—yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace … I speak of peace because of the new face of war…in an age when a singular nuclear weapon contains ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied forces in the Second World War … an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and air and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn … I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men … world peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance … our problems are man-made—therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.” The president also made two announcements—that the Soviets had expressed a desire to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty and that the U.S had postponed planned atmospheric tests.
West Berlin Speech
In 1963, Germany was enduring a time of particular vulnerability due to Soviet aggression to the east, de Gaulle’s French nationalism to the west, and the impending retirement of German Chancellor Adenauer. On June 26 Kennedy gave a public speech in West Berlin reiterating the American commitment to Germany and criticizing communism; he was met with an ecstatic response from a massive audience. Kennedy used the construction of the Berlin Wall as an example of the failures of communism: “Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” The speech is known for its famous phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner“ (“I am a citizen of Berlin”). A million people were on the street for the speech. He remarked to Ted Sorensen afterwards: “We’ll never have another day like this one, as long as we live.”
In 1960, Kennedy stated: “Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom”. Subsequently as president, Kennedy initiated the creation of security ties with Israel, and he is credited as the founder of the US-Israeli military alliance (which would be continued under subsequent presidents). Kennedy ended the arms embargo that the Eisenhower and Truman administrations had enforced on Israel. Describing the protection of Israel as a moral and national commitment, he was the first to introduce the concept of a ‘special relationship’ (as he described it to Golda Meir) between the US and Israel.
Kennedy extended the first informal security guarantees to Israel in 1962 and, beginning in 1963, was the first US president to allow the sale to Israel of advanced US weaponry (the MIM-23 Hawk), as well as to provide diplomatic support for Israeli policies which were opposed by Arab neighbours; such as its water project on the Jordan River. However, as result of this newly created security alliance, Kennedy also encountered tensions with the Israeli government regarding the production of nuclear materials in Dimona, which he believed could instigate a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East. After the existence of a nuclear plant was initially denied by the Israeli government, David Ben-Gurion stated in a speech to the Israeli Knesset on December 21, 1960, that the purpose of the nuclear plant at Beersheba was for “research in problems of arid zones and desert flora and fauna”. When Ben-Gurion met with Kennedy in New York, he claimed that Dimona was being developed to provide nuclear power for desalinization and other peaceful purposes “for the time being”. When Kennedy wrote that he was skeptical, and stated in a May 1963 letter to Ben-Gurion that American support to Israel could be in jeopardy if reliable information on the Israeli nuclear program was not forthcoming, Ben-Gurion repeated previous reassurances that Dimona was being developed for peaceful purposes. The Israeli government resisted American pressure to open its nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. In 1962, the US and Israeli governments had agreed to an annual inspection regime. A science attache at the embassy in Tel Aviv concluded that parts of the Dimona facility had been shut down temporarily to mislead American scientists when they visited. According to Seymour Hersh, the Israelis set up false control rooms to show the Americans. Israeli lobbyist Abe Feinberg stated, “It was part of my job to tip them off that Kennedy was insisting on [an inspection].” Hersh contends the inspections were conducted in such a way that it “guaranteed that the whole procedure would be little more than a whitewash, as the President and his senior advisors had to understand: the American inspection team would have to schedule its visits well in advance, and with the full acquiescence of Israel.”. Marc Trachtenberg argued: “Although well aware of what the Israelis were doing, Kennedy chose to take this as satisfactory evidence of Israeli compliance with America’s non-proliferation policy.” The American who led the inspection team stated that the essential goal of the inspections was to find “ways to not reach the point of taking action against Israel’s nuclear weapons program”.
Rodger Davies, the director of the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern Affairs, concluded in March 1965 that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. He reported that Israel’s target date for achieving nuclear capability was 1968–69. On May 1, 1968, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach told President Johnson that Dimona was producing enough plutonium to produce two bombs a year. The State Department argued that if Israel wanted arms, it should accept international supervision of its nuclear program. Dimona was never placed under IAEA safeguards. Attempts to write Israeli adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) into contracts for the supply of U.S. weapons continued throughout 1968.
In 1963, the Kennedy administration backed the coup against the government of Iraq headed by Abd al-Karim Qasim, who five years earlier had deposed the Western-allied Iraqi monarchy. On February 8, 1963, Kennedy received a memo stating: “We will make informal friendly noises as soon as we can find out whom to talk with, and ought to recognize as soon as we’re sure these guys are firmly in the saddle. CIA had excellent reports on the plotting, but I doubt either they or UK should claim much credit for it.” The CIA had planned to remove Qasim in the past, but those efforts did not come to fruition. The new government, led by Abdul Salam Arif and dominated by the Ba’ath Party (along with a coalition of Nasserists and Iraqi nationalists), allegedly used lists—provided by the CIA—of suspected communists and other leftists to systematically murder unknown numbers of Iraq’s educated elite. The U.S. continued to back Arif after he purged the Ba’ath Party from the government. Former CIA officer James Chritchfield disputed the notion that the CIA offered “active support” to the coup plotters, arguing that while “well-informed” on the first coup, it was “surprised” by the power struggles that followed.
During his four-day visit to his ancestral home of Ireland in June 1963, Kennedy accepted a grant of armorial bearings from the Chief Herald of Ireland and received honorary degrees from the National University of Ireland and Trinity College, Dublin. He visited the cottage at Dunganstown, near New Ross, County Wexford where his ancestors had lived before emigrating to America. He also became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament). On December 22, 2006, the Irish Department of Justice released declassified police documents indicating that security was heightened as Kennedy was the subject of three death threats during this visit.
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
Troubled by the long-term dangers of radioactive contamination and nuclear weapons proliferation, Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty, originally conceived in Adlai Stevenson‘s 1956 presidential campaign. In their Vienna summit meeting in June 1961, Khrushchev and Kennedy reached an informal understanding against nuclear testing, but the Soviet Union began testing nuclear weapons that September. The United States responded by conducting tests five days later. Shortly thereafter, new U.S. satellites began delivering images which made it clear that the Soviets were substantially behind the U.S. in the arms race. Nevertheless, the greater nuclear strength of the U.S. was of little value as long as the U.S.S.R. perceived themselves to be at parity.
In July 1963, Kennedy sent Averell Harriman to Moscow to negotiate a treaty with the Soviets. The introductory sessions included Khrushchev, who later delegated Soviet representation to Andrei Gromyko. It quickly became clear that a comprehensive test ban would not be implemented, due largely to the reluctance of the Soviets to allow inspections that would verify compliance. Ultimately, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were the initial signatories to a limited treaty, which prohibited atomic testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, or underwater, but not underground; the U.S. Senate ratified this and Kennedy signed it into law in October 1963. France was quick to declare that it was free to continue developing and testing its nuclear defenses.