The official White House portrait shows that being President isn’t exactly a cake walk
John F. Kennedy (who I will henceforth refer to as JFK in order to make life easier) was the youngest elected President ever (Theodore Roosevelt was a year younger than him when he became President following the assassination of President William McKinley), and he happened to have a lot of vision for where he wanted to lead the nation. JFK wanted to change the United States in many ways, but unfortunately his assassination stopped him from ever achieving his goals. In his short life he still accomplished quite a bit and led the nation through some rough times, which is why he remains an Important American.
JFK wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth…that dang thing was gold! Oh, and it was also studded with diamonds and emeralds and rubies, and there might have been a bit of unobtainium on there too. He was born a Kennedy, which was a wealthy and popular family that lived in Massachusetts. He grew up having all of life’s advantages and he attended only the best schools. Since his family had tons of political connections JFK got to travel around the world to meet tons of foreign leaders.
JFK tried to join the Army after graduation from Harvard but was not accepted due to his poor health (he was constantly sick throughout his life.) He was able to get into the Navy, and was just in time for the start of World War II. One night in 1943 JFK’s ship was attacked by the Japanese and his entire crew had to jump overboard. JFK bravely led his crew through the ocean to an island. One of his crew members was too wounded to swim, so JFK took the man’s life jacket strap in his mouth and towed him to safety. This rescue earned JFK the Purple Heart medal, and he is the only President to have ever received it.
JFK in his spiffy sailor suit
After the war JFK was elected to the House of Representatives. At the end of his term, rather than run for re-election he set his sights on the Senate. He was elected in 1952, and the following year he married Jacqueline Bouvier, who was also from a well-to-do family. He attempted to gain support to run as Vice President in the 1956 election but he wasn’t quite popular enough for that yet. He returned to the Senate where his support of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 got him more national attention since it was the first piece of civil rights legislation to go before Congress since the end of the Civil War.
In 1960 JFK decided to attend the “big dance” and formally ran for President of the United States. During the campaign, JFK (Democrat) and Richard Nixon (Republican) took part in the first ever televised Presidential debate. JFK used his smooth talking and charisma to overshadow the nervous Nixon who was definitely not prepared for the rigors of speaking to a televised audience. It was a tough race as some Southern Democrats did not approve of JFK’s support of civil rights, but he managed to beat Nixon and become the thirty-fifth President of the United States.
Whenever the camera zoomed in the audience could see the sweat beading up on Nixon’s face
In his inauguration address JFK delivered one of the most memorial quotes in American politics; “Ask not what your country can do for you…ask what you can do for your country.” JFK planned on making major changes to American society but knew that he would need the support of the people to accomplish his goals. He called his domestic policy “The New Frontier” and he planned on giving more Federal funding to schools, social programs and impoverished areas in the United States.
JFK also had high hopes for a United States that was free of racism. He worked hard to create the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but he never lived to see the law pass. JFK also fought against sexism and he passed legislation that made sure men and women got paid the same. He also had aspirations of helping the impoverished across the world. He set up the Peace Corps which is a program that sends American volunteers to underdeveloped countries to give aid for a time.
JFK also faced several issues in foreign policy, most of which dealt with the Cold War against the Soviet Union. On April 17, 1961, JFK gave the thumbs up for what was called the “Bay of Pigs”, which was the CIA’s attempt to arm Cubans so that they could overthrow the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (who was chummy with the Soviet Union.) The plan failed since the U.S. didn’t really do anything but give the Cubans weapons and leave them to handle the tactical planning themselves.
JFK then faced another challenge in Cuba with the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” The Soviet Union began building missile silos in Cuba. JFK saw this as a threat and ordered a blockade of Cuba. On October 28, 1963, a Soviet ship was spotted and it appeared that it might try to break through the blockade, or it was just playing a game of chicken. It was a tense time because if either a U.S. ship or a Soviet ship opened fire on the other, a nuclear war was a very likely outcome. In the end the Soviet ship stopped so it could be boarded, and a deal was made with the Soviet Union to get those missiles off of Cuba.
If only all international disputes could be resolved with an arm wrestling competition
The Soviet Union also provided challenges in the Eastern hemisphere. In 1961 the Soviet Union and the nation of East Germany maintained their communist alliance by erecting the Berlin Wall, which eventually separated East Germany and West Germany. The Soviet Union was also supporting communist forces in Vietnam. JFK responded by deploying U.S. soldiers and advisors there to attempt to combat the communist forces led by South Korean dictator Ngo Dinh Diem from taking control.
The other Soviet challenge did not take place on Earth, but rather in space. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to check out space in a rocket. JFK saw this as a challenge, and not only wanted to catch up to the Soviets by sending an American into space, but he also wanted to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. This buildup of space technology became known as the “Space Race” and it was important to Kennedy to prove that the U.S. was better than the Soviets.
JFK had a lot of plans for the United States. While he started many initiatives which led to social reform and civil rights legislation, he did not live long enough to see many of them actually become laws. On November 22, 1963, JFK was assassinated while on a trip in Dallas, Texas. While he did not live to see all his goals take form, what he did achieve during his Presidency, and what he paved the way for in future legislation, makes John F. Kennedy an Important American.
Why He’s an Important American:
- Received Purple Heart during WWII
- Was the thirty-fifth President of the United States
- Took part in the first televised Presidential debate
- The New Frontier- domestic policy that helped the impoverished areas of the country
- The Bay of Pigs- supported CIA plan to attempt to overthrow Castro that failed
- Cuban Missile Crisis- demanded that the Soviet Union remove missiles placed in Cuba- almost led to nuclear war
- Supported civil rights and women’s rights
- Space Race- planned to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon
- Started the Peace Corps
Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
Ferris, Robert G. The Presidents: From the Inauguration of George Washington to the Inauguration of Jimmy Carter. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977.
Leaming, Barbara. Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006.
Smith, Carter. Presidents: All You Need to Know. Irvington: Hylas Publishing, 2005.