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Kennedy, John Fitzgerald

A Dictionary of Contemporary World History

Jan Palmowski

Kennedy, John Fitzgerald (‘Jack’ Kennedy) ( ‘J F K’) 

(b. 29 May 1917, d. 22 Nov. 1963).

35th US President 1961–3

Early career (up to 1952)

Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, of Irish Catholic descent. John Kennedy (later known as JFK) was the second male child of Joseph (‘Joe’) Patrick Kennedy, an extremely wealthy banker whose money had been built up on the stock market, in the cinema industry, and the bootleg liquor industry at the time of prohibition. Joe Kennedy had presidential ambitions himself, and was prominent in the New Deal era. He was, however, compromised by his appeasement tendencies towards the Nazis whilst ambassador to London between 1938 and 1941. John F. Kennedy had been born with a deformed spine and an adrenal deficiency, which were complicated in later life by severe injuries sustained in World War II, when the navy boat of which he had command was sunk by the Japanese. Following the collapse of his own presidential hopes, his father's fierce political ambition was transferred to his first‐born son, Joe Kennedy, but following Joe's death in World War II, John assumed the burden.

Senator (1952–60)

John was elected to Congress as a Democrat with the help of his father's money and newspaper contacts in 1946. He was held in low regard by his colleagues in the House of Representatives, where he was seen as a playboy. In 1952 he was elected to the US Senate after a masterful campaign organized by his father and brother, Robert Kennedy. Hospitalization whilst undergoing a corrective operation on his spine caused him to miss the vote censuring Senator McCarthy, though many suspected that the strongly anti‐Communist Kennedy may have wanted to avoid the vote anyway. He narrowly missed the 1956 nomination for Vice‐President after delivering a stirring speech to the Democratic convention of that year, but following his re‐election to the Senate in 1958, he decided to run for President in 1960.

Presidency (1961–3)

In one of the closest elections in US history, Kennedy won 49.9 per cent of the popular vote, defeating Vice‐President Richard Nixon by 0.3 per cent, after a campaign again organized by his brother Robert. The younger generation was drawn to his self‐effacing wit, grace, dynamism, and youth, and he skilfully exploited his image as a young father, and representative of the junior officers of World War II. In his first year, he was mainly occupied by the Cold War. He proposed a ‘Peace Corps’, and an Apollo programme to place a man in space and then upon the moon by 1969.

The disastrous incursion of US‐trained, CIA‐sponsored Cuban exiles into the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961 (to which Kennedy refused to lend direct US military support) earned him the lasting and ferocious enmity of a majority of Cuban Americans. His, difficult summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna encouraged the Soviet leader to believe that Kennedy was lightweight. This perception culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which proved a turning point of his fortunes in foreign policy. In early 1963 he signed an atmospheric nuclear test ban Treaty (disarmament), while in a later speech at Washington University he called for global awareness of the need for states to respect common resources and to understand each other. In the summer of that year he delivered a rousing speech in front of the Berlin Wall.

At home the civil rights movement and the prospect of a re‐election campaign in 1964 caused him to become more activist in the support of minority groups and to emphasize his liberal credentials. He began to prepare health insurance and welfare proposals, and talked of an anti‐poverty programme. He was also responsible for the deepening involvement of US troops in Vietnam. His assassination in Dallas, Texas, has aroused deep controversy and doubts in the report of the commission headed by Chief Justice Warren, which concluded that a lone assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible.

Kennedy's bills to raise the minimum wage, to promote public works, to modify urban renewal programmes, and to cut taxes were all passed in the face of an often hostile Congress, and his legislative record compares reasonably well with that of the Truman Administration. However, his Presidency is remembered in the popular mind for its style, not substance—for his youthful sophistication, its spirit of adventure, and its tragic end.

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