John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917, the second son of financier Joseph P. Kennedy, who served as ambassador to Great Britain during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He graduated from Harvard University in 1940, winning note with the publication of Why England Slept, an expansion of his senior thesis on Britain’s lack of preparedness for World War II. His part in the war was distinguished by bravery. In August 1943, as commander of the U.S. Navy torpedo boat PT-109, he rescued several crewmen after a Japanese destroyer off the Solomon Islands rammed the boat. His heroic rescue of survivors of his crew won him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal as well as the Purple Heart. In 1953 He married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, daughter of a wealthy Wall Street broker, they had two children Caroline & JFK JR. In 1946, and with the enthusiastic help of his brothers and sisters won the Democratic nomination to the House of Representatives in the eleventh district of Massachusetts. His mother and sisters organized teas at the homes of voters, while his father furnished campaign funds. He won the election and as Congressman voted for Truman’s welfare programs, including expanded social security benefits, aid to veterans, and old-age benefits. In 1952, Kennedy upset the veteran Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge by winning his seat in the US Senate. He and his family began working tirelessly for his presidential nomination as early as 1956. In 1956 Kennedy almost gained the Democratic nomination for Vice President, and four years later was a first-ballot nominee for President. Millions watched his four television debates with the Republican candidate and current Vice President, Richard M. Nixon. Winning by a narrow margin in the popular vote, Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic President.
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His Inaugural address offered the memorable injunction: “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” As President, he set out to redeem his campaign pledge to get America moving again. His economic programs launched the country on its longest sustained expansion since World War II; before his death, he laid plans for a massive assault on persisting pockets of privation and poverty. This plan was named the new frontier; his ideas were used for years to come. Kennedy’s New Frontier program suggested grand reforms, but provided few plans for achieving them. Kennedy had little patience with the details involved in government. He distrusted bureaucracy and believed he could get things done with an executive branch filled with smart, aggressive achievers. He wanted to improve housing, education and health care but he could not get the votes he needed in congress.
Kennedy did win an increase in the minimum wage by 25 cents. He also got congress to approve $5 billion in urban renewal programs to rebuild run-down areas of the nation’s cities. His proposals of aid for education and health insurance for the elderly met defeat. The US economy, which had performed splendidly through most of the 1950s, had slowed at the end of the decade. Unemployment was at one of the highest levels since World War II. Under Kennedy the economy moved upward, fueled by heavy federal spending on military and space projects. In 1963 JFK called for a “national assault on the causes of poverty.” Yet he did not offer a strong program to fight poverty. His major economic goal at the time was to cut personal income taxes. He believed that would stimulate the economy and produce more jobs. However the federal government was already spending more than it was taking in. Congress rejected the tax cut.
Kennedy’s Civil Rights Time-Line
1961 Kennedy establishes Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity
1962 Kennedy orders an end to discrimination in public housing built with federal funds.
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1963 Kennedy sends federal troops to enforce right of black students to enroll in AL University
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. 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, MLK Jr., had been jailed for leading protests in Georgia. Kennedy called King’s wife, Coretta, 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 white people Blacks Black">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.
Communism posed some of Kennedy’s biggest challenges. After Kennedy permitted Cuban exiles to attempt an overthrow of Fidel Castro, which ultimately failed, the Soviet Union renewed its campaign against Berlin, resulting in Kennedy increasing U.S. military strength and Moscow erecting Berlin Wall. In 1961, his first year in office, Kennedy was battered by a series of adverse international developments. Inheriting from the previous administration a secret plan to overthrow the Cuban regime of Premier Fidel Castro, Kennedy approved an invasion of Cuba in April by refugees operating with the help of U.S. agencies. The abrupt failure of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs resulted in personal embarrassment for the president. Cold war tensions were further aggravated when the Soviet Union sent the first man into space in April and resumed atmospheric nuclear tests in September.
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Launching the US into space exploration was one of Kennedy’s top priorities. Kennedy was determined to overtake the Soviets in space. Shortly after taking office, JFK made a daring proposal. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out,” he said, “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” The space program fascinates the American people. In the early 1960s whenever space flights were launched during school hours students would gather in gyms and auditoriums to watch the lift offs on television. The race to the moon continued through the 1960s. It is one of the nations single most expensive projects of the decade, costing $56 billion.
On November 22, at 12:30 PM CST, while riding in an open limousine through Dallas, Texas, Kennedy was shot in the head and neck by a sniper. He was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where efforts to revive him failed. A commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded in September 1964 that the sole assassin was Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine. Oswald, who was captured hours after the assassination in a nearby theater, was himself killed two days later by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being moved from the city to the county jail. The state funeral of President Kennedy was watched on television by millions around the world. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. To this day JFK is still considered one of the nations best presidents.
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