Presidency of John F. Kennedy

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Kennedy, 1963

The presidency of John F. Kennedy began on January 20, 1961, when Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States, and ended on November 22, 1963, upon his assassination and death, a span of 1,036 days. A Democrat, he took office following the 1960 presidential election, in which he narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, he was succeeded by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kennedy was the first person born in the 20th century to be elected president,[1][a] and, at age 43, the youngest person elected to the office.[3][4][b] He was also the first Roman Catholic elected to the presidency.[5] Kennedy played an important role in bringing American politics into the modern communications age, as his use of television provided a campaign model that spoke to voters directly, and his media presidency greatly weakened the power of political machines in party politics.[6][7]

Kennedy's time in office was marked by Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union and especially with Cuba; in Cuba, a failed attempt was made in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. Kennedy's administration subsequently rejected plans by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to orchestrate false-flag attacks on American soil in order to gain public approval for a war against Cuba. In October 1962, it was discovered that Soviet ballistic missiles had been deployed in Cuba; the resulting period of unease, termed the Cuban Missile Crisis, is seen by many historians as the closest the human race has ever come to nuclear war between nuclear-armed belligerents.

To contain Communist expansion in Asia, Kennedy increased the number of American military advisers in South Vietnam by a factor of 18 over his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower; a further escalation of the American role in the Vietnam War took place after Kennedy's death. In domestic politics Kennedy made bold proposals in his New Frontier agenda, but few were passed by Congress, he did establish of the Peace Corps, and intensify the Space Race. Kennedy took steps to support the Civil Rights Movement, and after his death his proposed civil rights bill was passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1960 election[edit]

1960 electoral vote results

Kennedy officially entered the presidential race on January 2, 1960, his main challenger in the Democratic primaries was Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. After Kennedy won a decisive victory over him in West Virginia, a heavily Protestant state, Humphrey withdrew from the race, he still faced a challenge from Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who did not participate in the primaries. Kennedy overcame this formal challenge, as well as informal ones from Adlai Stevenson (the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956), Stuart Symington, at the Democratic National Convention that July to win the nomination on the first ballot. Kennedy chose Johnson to be his vice-presidential running mate, despite opposition from many liberal delegates and Kennedy's own staff, including his brother Robert Kennedy.[8]

Nixon faced no formidable opposition for the Republican nomination, he easily won the party's primaries and received close to unanimous votes from delegates to the Republican National Convention. He chose Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations as his running mate.[9]

Both presidential candidates traveled extensively during the course of the campaign. Not wanting to concede any state as "unwinnable," Nixon undertook a fifty-state strategy. Kennedy focused the states with the most Electoral College votes,[9] he relied heavily on 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. 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."[10]

On November 8, Kennedy defeated Nixon in one of the closest U.S. presidential elections of the 20th century.[11] Kennedy won the popular vote by a narrow margin of 120,000 votes out of a record 68.8 million ballots cast.[9] Kennedy won the electoral college vote by a wider margin, receiving 303 votes to Nixon's 219; in addition, 14 unpledged electors[c] from two states—Alabama (6) and Mississippi (8)—voted for Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia (even though he had not been a presidential candidate), as did one faithless elector[d] in Oklahoma.[11]


Chief Justice Earl Warren administers the presidential oath of office to John F. Kennedy at the Capitol, January 20, 1961

Kennedy was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1961 on the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Earl Warren administered the oath of office.[14]

In his inaugural address, Kennedy 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 also invited the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the "common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."[15] To these admonitions 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.[15]

The address reflected Kennedy's confidence that his administration would chart an 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.[16] Full text Wikisource has information on "John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address"

This was the first inauguration at which an inaugural poem was delivered.[17] Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright" from memory. He had also planned to read a new poem he had written for the occasion titled "Dedication" (later retitled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration"), but was unable to read it because of the sun's glare.[18]



The Kennedy Cabinet
Office Name Term
President John F. Kennedy 1961–1963
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson 1961–1963
Secretary of State Dean Rusk 1961–1963
Secretary of Treasury C. Douglas Dillon 1961–1963
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara 1961–1963
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy 1961–1963
Postmaster General J. Edward Day 1961–1963
John A. Gronouski 1963
Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall 1961–1963
Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman 1961–1963
Secretary of Commerce Luther H. Hodges 1961–1963
Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg 1961–1962
W. Willard Wirtz 1962–1963
Secretary of Health,
Education, and Welfare
Abraham A. Ribicoff 1961–1962
Anthony J. Celebrezze 1962–1963

Advisory staff[edit]

President John F. Kennedy (seated) with members of his White House staff

The president's advisory staff included:[19]

  • Special Counsel to the President: Theodore Sorensen
  • Deputy Special Counsel to the President: Myer Feldman
  • Special Assistant Counsel to the President: Richard Goodwin, Lee C. White
  • National Security Advisor: McGeorge Bundy
  • Special Assistant to the President: Frederick G. Dutton, Ralph A. Dungan, James M. Landis, Lawrence (Larry) F. O'Brien, P. Kenneth O'Donnell, Frank D. Reeves, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Jerome B. Wiesner, Harris L. Wofford, Jr.
  • Deputy Special Assistant to the President: Walt Whitman Rostow
  • Staff Assistant to the President: Dan H. Fenn, Jr.
  • Administrative Assistant to the President: Mike. N. Manatos, Timothy J. "Ted" Reardon, Henry Hall Wilson, Jr.
  • Press Secretary: Pierre Salinger
  • Military Aide to the President: Brig. General Chester V. Clifton (Army), Col. Godfrey McHugh (Air Force), Comdr. Tazewell Taylor Shepard (Navy)
  • Secretary to President Kennedy: Evelyn Lincoln, Richard Bissell, Edwin Martin

Kennedy brought to the White House a contrast in organization compared to the decision-making structure of former-General Eisenhower; and he wasted no time in scrapping Eisenhower's methods.[20] He 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.[21] Kennedy's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, served as Attorney General, and the younger Kennedy was often referred to as the "assistant president" in reference to his wide range of influence.[22] National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy emerged as one of the most important aides with regards to foreign policy, while Ted Sorensen was a key advisor on domestic issues and also wrote many of Kennedy's speeches.[23] Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was largely sidelined during the administration.[24]

Judicial appointments[edit]

Kennedy made two appointments to the United States Supreme Court while president:[25]

Additionally, Kennedy appointed 21 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 102 judges to the United States district courts.

Domestic affairs[edit]

New Frontier[edit]

Kennedy in Miami, Florida, November 18, 1963

Kennedy called his domestic program the "New Frontier," which included initiatives such as medial care for the elderly, federal aid to education, and the creation of a department of housing and urban development. Kennedy also called for a large tax cut as an economic stimulus measure. However, many of his programs were blocked by the conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats in the 87th Congress and the 88th Congress; in part due to this opposition from Congress, Kennedy focused more on international affairs than in pursuing his ambitious domestic policies.[26]


Kennedy ended a period of tight fiscal policies, loosening monetary policy to keep interest rates down and to encourage growth of the economy,[27] he presided over the first government budget to top the $100 billion mark, in 1962, and his first budget in 1961 led to the country's first non-war, non-recession deficit.[28]

The economy, which had been through two recessions in three years, and was in one when Kennedy took office, accelerated notably during his presidency, despite low inflation and interest rates, GDP had grown by an average of only 2.2% per annum during the Eisenhower presidency (scarcely more than population growth at the time), and had declined by 1% during Eisenhower's last twelve months in office.[29] The economy prospered during the Kennedy administration. GDP expanded by an average of 5.5% from early 1961 to late 1963,[29] while inflation remained steady at around 1% and unemployment eased.[30] Industrial production rose by 15% and motor vehicle sales rose by 40%,[31] this sustained rate of growth in GDP and industry continued until around 1969.[29]

In 1962, as the economy continued to grow, Kennedy became concerned with the issue of inflation, he asked companies and unions to work together to keep prices low, and met initial success.[32] Bobby Kennedy took the position that the steel executives had illegally colluded to fix prices, the administration's actions influenced U.S. Steel to rescind the price increase.[33] The Wall Street Journal wrote that the administration had acted "by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police."[34] Yale law professor Charles Reich opined in The New Republic that the administration had violated civil liberties by calling a grand jury to indict U.S. Steel for collusion so quickly.[34]

A New York Times editorial praised Kennedy's actions and said that the steel industry's price increase "imperils the economic welfare of the country by inviting a tidal wave of inflation."[35] Nevertheless, the administration's Bureau of Budget reported the price increase would have resulted in a net gain for GDP as well as a net budget surplus,[36] the stock market, which had steadily declined since Kennedy's election, dropped 10% shortly after the administration's action on the steel industry.[37]


Much to the chagrin of his economic advisors who wanted him to reduce taxes, Kennedy agreed to a balanced budget pledge soon after taking office, this was needed in exchange for votes to expand the membership of the House Rules Committee in order to give the Democrats an increased power in setting the legislative agenda.[38] After an economic slump in 1962, Kennedy again proposed a tax cut to stimulate the economy.[39]

In his 1963 State of the Union address, he proposed substantial tax reform, and a reduction in income tax rates from the then-current range of 20–90% to a range of 14–65%; he proposed a reduction in the corporate tax rates from 52 to 47%. Kennedy added that the top rate should be set at 70% if certain deductions were not eliminated for high income earners,[40] that same year, in a speech to the Economic Club of New York, he spoke of "... the paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high and revenues too low; and the soundest way to raise revenue in the long term is to lower rates now."[41] On February 26, 1964, two months after Kennedy's death, Congress approved the Revenue Act of 1964, that lowered the top individual rate to 70%, and the top corporate rate to 48%.[42]

Federal and military death penalty[edit]

As president, Kennedy oversaw the last federal execution prior to Furman v. Georgia, a 1972 case that led to a moratorium on federal executions.[43] Victor Feguer was sentenced to death by a federal court in Iowa and was executed on March 15, 1963.[44] Kennedy commuted a death sentence imposed by a military court on seaman Jimmie Henderson on February 12, 1962, changing the penalty to life in prison,[45] on March 22, 1962, Kennedy signed into law HR5143 (PL87-423), abolishing the mandatory death penalty for first degree murder in the District of Columbia, the only remaining jurisdiction in the United States with such a penalty.[46] The death penalty has not been applied in the District of Columbia since 1957, and has now been abolished.[47]

Status of women[edit]

On December 14, 1961 the president signed an executive order creating the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to advise him on issues concerning the status of women.[48] Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led the commission until her death in 1962, the commission's final report, entitled "American Women", was issued in October 1963. The report documented the legal and cultural discrimination women in America faced and made several policy recommendations to bring about change.[49] Creation of this commission along with its public profile prompted Congress to began considering various bills related to women's status, among them was the Equal Pay Act of 1963, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on sex; Kennedy signed it into law on June 10, 1963.[50]

Civil rights[edit]

The turbulent end of state-sanctioned racial discrimination was one of the most pressing domestic issues of the 1960s. Jim Crow segregation was the established law in the Deep South.[51] The Supreme Court of the United States had ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Many schools, especially in southern states, did not obey the Supreme Court's decision, the Court also prohibited segregation at other public facilities (such as buses, restaurants, theaters, courtrooms, bathrooms, and beaches) but it continued nonetheless.[52]

In May 1961 Kennedy appointed Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Court of Appeals

Kennedy verbally supported racial integration and civil rights; during the 1960 campaign he telephoned Coretta Scott King, wife of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been jailed while trying to integrate a department store lunch counter. Robert Kennedy called Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver and obtained King's release from prison, which drew additional black support to his brother's candidacy.[52] Upon taking office in 1961, Kennedy postponed promised civil rights legislation he made while campaigning in 1960, recognizing that conservative Southern Democrats controlled congressional legislation.[53] Historian Carl M. Brauer concluded that passing any civil rights legislation in 1961 would have been futile,[53] during his first year in office Kennedy appointed many blacks to office including his May appointment of civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall as a federal judge; Marshall would later be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967.[54]

In his first State of the Union Address in January 1961, President Kennedy said: "The denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race – at the ballot box and elsewhere – disturbs the national conscience, and subjects us to the charge of world opinion that our democracy is not equal to the high promise of our heritage."[55] Kennedy believed the grassroots movement for civil rights would anger many Southern whites and make it more difficult to pass civil rights laws in Congress, including anti-poverty legislation, and he distanced himself from it.[56]

Kennedy was concerned with other issues early in his presidency, such as the Cold War, Bay of Pigs fiasco and the situation in Southeast Asia, as articulated by brother Robert, the administration's early priority was to "keep the president out of this civil rights mess." Civil rights movement participants, mainly those on the front line in the South, viewed Kennedy as lukewarm, [54] especially concerning the Freedom Riders, who organized an integrated public transportation effort in the south, and who were repeatedly met with white mob violence, including by law enforcement officers, both federal and state. Kennedy assigned federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders rather than using federal troops or uncooperative FBI agents.[54] Robert Kennedy, speaking for the president, urged the Freedom Riders to "get off the buses and leave the matter to peaceful settlement in the courts."[57] Kennedy feared sending federal troops would stir up "hated memories of Reconstrucion" after the Civil War among conservative Southern whites.[54]

On March 6, 1961, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925 which required government contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." It established the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Displeased with Kennedy's pace addressing the issue of segregation, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates produced a document in 1962 calling on the president to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln and use an Executive Order to deliver a blow for Civil Rights as a kind of Second Emancipation Proclamation; Kennedy did not execute the order.[58]

In September 1962, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi but was prevented from entering. Attorney General Robert Kennedy responded by sending 400 federal marshals, while President Kennedy reluctantly sent 3,000 troops after the situation on campus turned violent,[59] the Ole Miss riot of 1962 left two dead and dozens injured, but Meredith did finally enroll in his first class. Kennedy regretted not sending in troops earlier and he began to doubt whether the "evils of Reconstruction" of the 1860s and 1870s he had been taught or believed in were true,[54] the instigating subculture at the Old Miss riot, and at many other racially ignited events, was the Ku Klux Klan.[60] On November 20, 1962, Kennedy signed Executive Order 11063, prohibiting racial discrimination in federally supported housing or "related facilities".[61]

In the spring of 1963, with civil rights clashes on the rise, the president's brother and Ted Sorenson pressed Kennedy to take more initiative on the legislative front,[62] on June 11, 1963, President Kennedy intervened when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama to stop two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from attending. Wallace moved aside only after being confronted by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the Alabama National Guard, which had just been federalized by order of the president, that evening Kennedy delivered a major address on civil rights on national television and radio. In it he launched his initiative for civil rights legislation that would guarantee equal access to public schools and other facilities, the equal administration of justice, and also greater protection of voting rights,[63][64] the day ended with the murder of a NAACP leader, Medgar Evers, in front of his home in Mississippi.[65] As the president had predicted, the day after his TV speech, and in reaction to it, House Majority leader Carl Albert called to advise him that his two-year signature effort in Congress to combat poverty in Appalachia (Area Redevelopment Administration) had been defeated, primarily by the votes of Southern Democrats and Republicans.[66]

Kennedy meets with leaders of the March on Washington in the Oval Office, August 28, 1963

Over a hundred thousand, predominantly African Americans, gathered in Washington for the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Kennedy opposed the march, fearing it would have a negative effect on the prospects for the civil rights bills pending in Congress, these fears were heightened just prior to the march when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover presented the administration with allegations that some of Martin Luther King Jr's close advisers, specifically Jack O'Dell and Stanley Levison, were communists.[67] The President and Robert Kennedy together met with King on June 22, and strongly warned King to cut all ties with the both Levison and O'Dell.[68] When King ignored the warning, Robert Kennedy issued a written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization in October 1963.[69] Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King's phones "on a trial basis, for a month or so",[70] Hoover extended the clearance so his men were "unshackled" to look for evidence in any areas of King's life they deemed worthy,[71] the wiretapping continued through June 1966 and was revealed in 1968.[72]

The task of coordinating the federal government's involvement in the August 28 March on Washington was given to the Department of Justice, which channeled several hundreds thousand dollars to the six sponsors of the March, including the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.[73] To ensure a peaceful demonstration, the organizers and the president personally edited speeches which were inflammatory and collaborated on all aspects related to times and venues. Thousands of troops were placed on standby. Kennedy watched King's speech on TV and was very impressed, the March was considered a "triumph of managed protest", and not one arrest relating to the demonstration occurred. Afterwards, the March leaders accepted an invitation to the White House to meet with Kennedy and photos were taken. Kennedy felt that the March was a victory for him as well and bolstered the chances for his civil rights bill.[73]

Notwithstanding the success of the March, the larger struggle was far from over. Three weeks later, a bomb exploded on Sunday, September 15 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham; by the end of the day, four African American children had died in the explosion, and two other children shot to death in the aftermath.[74] Due to this resurgent violence, the civil rights legislation underwent some drastic amendments that critically endangered any prospects for its passage. An outraged president called congressional leaders to the White House and by the following day the original bill, without the additions, had enough votes to get it out of the House committee.[75] Gaining Republican support, Senator Everett Dirksen promised the legislation would be brought to a vote preventing a Senate filibuster,[76] the following summer, on July 2, the guarantees Kennedy proposed in his June 1963 speech became federal law, when President Lyndon Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.[76]

Abolishing the poll tax[edit]

  Poll tax
  Cumulative poll tax (missed poll taxes from prior years must also be paid to vote)
  No poll tax
History of the poll tax by state from 1868 to 1966.

Sensitive to criticisms of the administration's commitment to protecting the constitutional rights of minorities at the ballot box, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, early in 1962, urged the president to press Congress to take action. President Kennedy, rather than proposing comprehensive legislation, put his support behind a proposal to prohibit states—through constitutional amendment—from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other types of tax. He considered the constitutional amendment the best way to avoid a filibuster, as the claim that federal abolition of the poll tax was unconstitutional would be moot. Still, some liberals opposed Kennedy's action, feeling that an amendment would be too slow compared to legislation.[77] Several civil rights groups[e] also opposed the proposed amendment, saying in a March 21 statement that the amendment "would provide an immutable precedent for shunting all further civil rights legislation to the amendment procedure."[78]

The poll tax was one of several laws enacted by states across the South designed to disenfranchise and marginalize black citizens from politics so far as practicable without violating the Fifteenth Amendment prohibition against denying a person their right to vote on the basis of their "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" – as all voters were required to pay the poll tax, poor white voters were also affected. By 1902, all eleven states of the former Confederacy had enacted a poll tax, many within new constitutions that contained other provisions to reduce voter lists, such as literacy or comprehension tests, the poll tax was used together with grandfather clauses and the "white primary", and threats of violence. For example, potential voters had to be "assessed" in Arkansas, and blacks were utterly ignored in the assessment.[79] While a few states did abolish it during the early-to-mid-19th century, the poll tax survived a legal challenge in 1937, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Breedlove v. Suttles that "Voting is a privilege derived not from the United States, but from the State, which may impose such conditions as it deems appropriate, subject only to the limitations of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments and other provisions of the Federal Constitution."[80]

A constitutional amendment barring imposition of a poll tax in federal elections, initially introduced by Senator Spessard Holland of Florida,[81] was passed by both Houses of Congress in August 1962, and sent to the states for ratification. It was ratified on January 23, 1964 by the requisite number of states (38) becoming the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[82]

Native American relations[edit]

Construction of the Kinzua Dam flooded 10,000 acres (4,047 ha) of Seneca nation land that they had occupied under the Treaty of 1794, and forced 600 Seneca to relocate to Salamanca, New York. Kennedy was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to intervene and to halt the project, but he declined, citing a critical need for flood control, he expressed concern about the plight of the Seneca, and directed government agencies to assist in obtaining more land, damages, and assistance to help mitigate their displacement.[83][84]

Space policy[edit]

The Apollo program was conceived early in 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, as a follow-up to Project Mercury, to be used as a shuttle to an Earth-orbital space station, flights around the Moon, or landing on it. While NASA went ahead with planning for Apollo, funding for the program was far from certain, as Eisenhower's ambivalent attitude on manned spaceflight resulted in funding for the program being placed low on the list of priorities for spending,[85] as senator, Kennedy had been opposed to the space program and wanted to terminate it.[86]

In constructing his administration, Kennedy elected to retain Eisenhower's last science advisor Jerome Wiesner as head of the President's Science Advisory Committee. Wiesner was strongly opposed to manned space exploration,[87] having issued a report highly critical of Project Mercury.[88][89] Kennedy was turned down by seventeen candidates for NASA administrator before the post was accepted by James E. Webb, an experienced Washington insider who served President Harry S. Truman as budget director and undersecretary of state. Webb proved to be adept at obtaining the support of Congress, the President, and the American people.[90] Kennedy also persuaded Congress to amend the National Aeronautics and Space Act to allow him to delegate his chairmanship of the National Aeronautics and Space Council to the Vice President, [90][91] both because of the knowledge of the space program Johnson gained in the Senate working for the creation of NASA, and to help keep the politically savvy Johnson occupied.[90]

Kennedy proposing a program to land men on the Moon to Congress in May 1961. Johnson and Sam Rayburn are seated behind him

In Kennedy's January 1961 State of the Union address, he had suggested international cooperation in space. Khrushchev declined, as the Soviets did not wish to reveal the status of their rocketry and space capabilities.[92] Early in his presidency, Kennedy was poised to dismantle the manned space program, but postponed any decision out of deference to Johnson, who had been a strong supporter of the space program in the Senate.[86] Kennedy's advisors speculated that a Moon flight would be prohibitively expensive,[93] and he was considering plans to dismantle the Apollo program due to its cost.[94]

However, this quickly changed on April 12, 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union.[95] Kennedy now became eager for the U.S. to take the lead in the Space Race, for reasons of strategy and prestige. On April 20, he sent a memo to Johnson, asking him to look into the status of America's space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up,[96][97] after consulting with Wernher von Braun, Johnson responded approximately one week later, concluding that "we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership."[98][99] His memo concluded that a manned Moon landing was far enough in the future that it was likely the United States would achieve it first.[98] Kennedy's advisor Ted Sorensen advised him to support the Moon landing, and on May 25, Kennedy announced the goal in a special message to Congress, saying:

... I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.[100] Full text Wikisource has information on "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs"

Kennedy speaks at Rice University, September 12, 1962 (duration 17:47)

After Congress authorized the funding, Webb began reorganizing NASA, increasing its staffing level, and building two new centers: a Launch Operations Center for the large Moon rocket northwest of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and a Manned Spacecraft Center on land donated through Rice University in Houston, Texas. Kennedy took the latter occasion as an opportunity to deliver another speech at Rice to promote the space effort on September 12, 1962, in which he said:

No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.[101] Full text Wikisource has information on "We choose to go to the moon"

On November 21, 1962, in a cabinet meeting with NASA administrator Webb and other officials, Kennedy explained that the Moon shot was important for reasons of international prestige, and that the expense was justified.[102] Johnson assured him that lessons learned from the space program had military value as well. Costs for the Apollo program were expected to reach $40 billion.[103]

In a September 1963 speech before the United Nations, Kennedy urged cooperation between the Soviets and Americans in space, specifically recommending that Apollo be switched to "a joint expedition to the Moon". Full text Wikisource has information on "John F. Kennedy's Address Before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations" Khrushchev again declined, and the Soviets did not commit to a manned Moon mission until 1964.[104] On July 20, 1969, almost six years after Kennedy's death, Apollo 11 landed the first manned spacecraft on the Moon.

Foreign affairs[edit]

Peace Corps[edit]

As one of his first presidential acts, Kennedy asked Congress to create the Peace Corps, his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was its first director.[105] 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.[106] Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries.[107][108]

The Cold War and flexible response[edit]

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. President Eisenhower had adopted the New Look policy, which emphasized the use of nuclear weapons to deter the threat of Soviet aggression. Eisenhower believed that this policy could be effective, but it also appealed to him as it allowed him to avoid an expensive build-up of conventional forces. Fearful of the possibility of a global nuclear war, Kennedy implemented a new strategy known as flexible response, this strategy relied on conventional arms to achieve limited goals. As part of this policy, Kennedy expanded the United States special operations forces, elite military units that could fight unconventionally in various conflicts. Kennedy hoped that the flexible response strategy would allow the U.S. to counter Soviet influence without resorting to war.[109]

Bay of Pigs Invasion[edit]

The President and Vice President take a leisurely stroll on the White House grounds

Fulgencio Batista, a Cuban dictator friendly towards the United States, had been forced out office in 1959 by the Cuban Revolution. Batista's successor, Fidel Castro, affiliated with Communism and the Soviet Union, giving the United States a potential adversary located less than one hundred miles from its shores, the Eisenhower administration had created a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime. 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[110][111] 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.[112]

Kennedy had campaigned on a hard-line stance against Castro, and when presented with the plan that had been developed under the Eisenhower administration, he agreed to back it despite his reservations about stoking tensions with the Soviet Union,[113] 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.[114]

The Kennedy administration had hoped that the landing would spark an uprising against Castro, but no such uprising occurred, and the landing quickly proved to be a failure.[115] 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.[116] The incident made Castro wary of the U.S. and led him to believe that another invasion would occur.[117]

According to biographer Richard Reeves, Kennedy focused primarily on the political repercussions of the plan rather than military considerations. When it failed, he was convinced that the plan was a setup to make him look bad,[118] 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."[119] Many in the U.S. appreciated Kennedy's willingness to take responsibility for the failure, and Kennedy's approval ratings climbed in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, the operation damaged Kennedy's reputation outside of the United States and raised tensions with the Soviet Union.[120]

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.[121]

Vienna Summit[edit]

In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy announced that he would meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the June 1961 Vienna summit, the summit would cover several topics, but both leaders knew that the most contentious issue would be that of Berlin, which had been divided into two cities with the start of the Cold War. The enclave of West Berlin lay within Soviet-allied East Germany, but was supported by the U.S. and other Western powers. The Soviets wanted to reunify Berlin under the control of East Germany, partly due to the large number of East Germans who had fled to West Berlin.[122]

Kennedy with Kwame Nkrumah, the first head of an independent Ghana, March 1961.

On the way to the summit, Kennedy stopped in Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle, who advised him to ignore Khrushchev's abrasive style, the French president feared 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 that he would be remembered as "the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris."[123]

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 that his only option was to prepare the country for nuclear war, which he personally thought had a one-in-five chance of occurring.[124]

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;[125] 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, stating that an attack on West Berlin would be taken as an attack on the U.S. The speech received an 85% approval rating.[126]

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 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 a convoy through West Germany, including Soviet-armed checkpoints, to demonstrate the continued commitment of the U.S. to West Berlin.[127]

Cuban Missile Crisis[edit]

Meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961

In the months following the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Soviet Union supplied Cuba with supplies and military equipment, the Kennedy administration viewed the growing Cuba-Soviet alliance with alarm, fearing that it could eventually pose a threat to the United States. Kennedy did not believe that the Soviet Union would risk placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, but he dispatched CIA U-2 spy planes to determine the extent of the Soviet military build-up,[128] on October 14, 1962, the 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.[129]

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 also 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.[130]

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".[131] There was also some reaction from the international community (asked in confidence), that the assault plan was an overreaction in light of the fact that U.S. missiles that had been placed in Turkey by Eisenhower. There could also be no assurance that the assault would be 100% effective;[132] 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.[133]

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.[134] United Nations (UN) Secretary General U Thant requested that both parties reverse their decisions and enter a cooling-off period. Khrushchev agreed, Kennedy did not.[135]

One Soviet-flagged ship was stopped and boarded, on October 28 Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites, subject to UN inspections.[136] The U.S. publicly promised never to invade Cuba and privately agreed to remove its missiles in Italy and Turkey, which were by then obsolete and had been supplanted by submarines equipped with UGM-27 Polaris missiles.[137]

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.[138] The crisis improved the image of American willpower and the president's credibility. Kennedy's approval rating increased from 66% to 77% immediately thereafter.[139] Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis has received wide praise from many scholars, although some critics place blame on Kennedy by contending the crisis started with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.[140]

Nuclear Test Ban Treaty[edit]

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;[141] 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.[142] 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.[143] Nevertheless, the greater nuclear strength of the U.S. was of little value as long as the Soviet Union perceived itself to be at parity.[144]

Kennedy delivers the commencement speech at American University, June 10, 1963

Kennedy delivered an inspiring commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C., on June 10, 1963. In speech, titled "A Strategy of Peace", he invited the graduates to reexamine their attitudes about the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and most importantly, about world peace, he said that he had come 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 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.[145]Full text Wikisource has information on "A Strategy of Peace"

The President also announced that the Soviet had agreed to resume nuclear test ban treaty talks, he then made it known that the U.S had postponed planned atmospheric nuclear tests and pledged that there would be no further such tests so long as no other nation conducted any.[146][147]

The following month, Kennedy sent W. Averell Harriman to Moscow to negotiate a treaty with the Soviets.[148] 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.[149]

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.[150]

Latin America and communism[edit]

Kennedy with Chilean President Jorge Alessandri

Arguing that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable,"[151] Kennedy sought to contain the perceived threat of communism in Latin America by establishing the Alliance for Progress, which sent aid to some countries and sought greater human rights standards in the region.[152] 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;[153] 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.[154]

Southeast Asia[edit]

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.[155]

In May 1961 he dispatched Lyndon Johnson to meet with South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem. Johnson assured Diem more aid to mold a fighting force that could resist the communists.[156] Kennedy announced a change of policy from support to partnership with Diem to defeat of communism in South Vietnam.[157]

During his administration, Kennedy continued policies that provided political and economic support, and military advice and support, to the South Vietnamese government.[158] Late in 1961, the Viet Cong began assuming a predominant presence, initially seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh.[159] Kennedy increased the number of military advisors and special forces U.S. Special Forces in the area, from 11,000 in 1962 to 16,000 by late 1963, but he was reluctant to order a full-scale deployment of troops.[160][161] Before his assassination, Kennedy used military advisors and special forces in Vietnam almost exclusively. A year and one-half later, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, committed the first combat troops to Vietnam and greatly escalated U.S. involvement, with forces reaching 184,000 that year and 536,000 in 1968.[162]

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 that these new communities would provide security for the peasants and strengthen the tie between them and the central government. By November 1963 the program waned and officially ended in 1964.[163]

In early 1962, Kennedy formally authorized escalated involvement when he signed the National Security Action Memorandum – "Subversive Insurgency (War of Liberation)".[164] Secretary of State Dean Rusk voiced strong support for U.S. involvement.[165] "Operation Ranch Hand", a large-scale aerial defoliation effort, began on the roadsides of South Vietnam.[166][f]

Kennedy with future Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in the Oval Office in 1963.

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."[168] 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, Jr. 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.[169] Lodge was instructed to try to get Diem and Nhu to step down and leave the country. Diem would not listen to Lodge.[170]

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.[171] Lodge stated that the only workable option was to get the South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Diem and Nhu, as originally planned.[172]

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".[173] At the same time, the first formal anti-Vietnam war sentiment was expressed by U.S. clergy from the Ministers' Vietnam Committee.[174]

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 that 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 that the two men were at such odds that they had not spoken to each other on the return flight.[175]

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."[176] 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.[177]

(L-R) English: Motorcade for President Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan. In open car (Lincoln-Mercury Continental with bubble top): Secret Service agent William Greer (driving); Military Aide to the President General Chester V. Clifton (front seat, center); Secret Service Agent Gerald "Jerry" Behn (front seat, right; partially hidden); President Mohammad Ayub Khan (standing); President John F. Kennedy (standing). Crowd watching. 14th Street, Washington, D.C.
Kennedy with President Ayub Khan of Pakistan

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,[178] 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.[179] 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.[180]

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.[181] Later that month, as the coup became imminent, Kennedy ordered all cables to be 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.[182]

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 that 24 hours were needed to procure a plane. Minh responded that he could not hold them that long.[183]

News of the coup led to renewed confidence initially—both in America and in South Vietnam—that the war might be won.[184] 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."[185]

Historians disagree on whether Vietnam would have escalated had Kennedy survived and been re-elected in 1964.[186] 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,[187] the film also contains a tape recording of Lyndon Johnson stating that Kennedy was planning to withdraw, a position that Johnson disagreed with.[188] 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,[189][190] 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.[191]

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."[192] At the time of Kennedy's death, no final policy decision had been made as to Vietnam;[193] in 2008, Theodore Sorensen wrote: "I would like to believe that Kennedy would have found a way to withdraw all American instructors and advisors [from Vietnam]. But even someone who knew JFK as well as I did can't be certain, because I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do."[194] Sorensen added that, in his opinion, Vietnam "was the only foreign policy problem handed off by JFK to his successor in no better, and possibly worse, shape than it was when he inherited it."[194] U.S. involvement in the region escalated until Lyndon Johnson, his successor, directly deployed regular U.S. military forces for fighting the Vietnam War.[195][196] 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.[197][198]

West Berlin speech[edit]

In 1963, Germany was enduring a time of particular vulnerability due to Soviet aggression to the east, and the impending retirement of West German Chancellor Adenauer,[199] at the same time, French President Charles de Gaulle was trying to build a Franco-West German counterweight to the American and Soviet spheres of influence.[200][201][202] To Kennedy's eyes, this Franco-German cooperation seemed directed against NATO's influence in Europe.[203]

On June 26, the president 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; a million people were present.[204][204] In it he praised the citizens of West Berlin for their refusal to be intimidated by the wall dividing their city,[205] and used the construction of the 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 remembered for its potent phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a citizen of Berlin").

Kennedy, overwhelmed by the reaction of the crowd, remarked to Ted Sorensen afterward: "We'll never have another day like this one, as long as we live.".[206] Later, his underlying message about captive peoples living under Communism and their right to self-determination would bear fruit in the 1968 Prague Spring, in the 1980s Solidarity movement, and in Ronald Reagan's 1987 Brandenburg Gate speech with its memorable line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"[205]


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."[207]

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.[208]

Kennedy with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir, December 27, 1962.

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 neighbors; such as its water project on the Jordan River.[209]

As result of this newly created security alliance, Kennedy also encountered tensions with the Israeli government over 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."[210] 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."[210]

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 attaché 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.[211]

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]."[211] 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."[212] 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."[213] 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."[214]

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 1968–1969,[215] 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.[211] 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.[216]


Relations between the United States and Iraq became strained following the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy on July 14, 1958, which resulted in the declaration of a republican government led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim,[217] on June 25, 1961, Qasim mobilized troops along the border between Iraq and Kuwait, declaring the latter nation "an indivisible part of Iraq" and causing a short-lived "Kuwait Crisis". The United Kingdom—which had just granted Kuwait independence on June 19, and whose economy was heavily dependent on Kuwaiti oil—responded on July 1 by dispatching 5,000 troops to the country to deter an Iraqi invasion, at the same time, Kennedy dispatched a U.S. Navy task force to Bahrain, and the U.K. (at the urging of the Kennedy administration) brought the dispute to United Nations Security Council, where the proposed resolution was vetoed by the Soviet Union. The situation was resolved in October, when the British troops were withdrawn and replaced by a 4,000-strong Arab League force.[218]

In December 1961, Qasim's government passed Public Law 80, which restricted the British- and American-owned Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC)'s concessionary holding to those areas in which oil was actually being produced, effectively expropriating 99.5% of the IPC concession. U.S. officials were alarmed by the expropriation as well as the recent Soviet veto of an Egyptian-sponsored UN resolution requesting the admittance of Kuwait as UN member state, which they believed to be connected. Senior National Security Council adviser Robert Komer worried that if the IPC ceased production in response, Qasim might "grab Kuwait" (thus achieving a "stranglehold" on Middle Eastern oil production), or "throw himself into Russian arms." Komer also made note of widespread rumors that a nationalist coup against Qasim could be imminent, and had the potential to "get Iraq back on [a] more neutral keel."[219]

In April 1962, the State Department issued new guidelines on Iraq that were intended to increase American influence there. Meanwhile, Kennedy instructed the CIA—under the direction of Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt Jr.—to begin making preparations for a military coup against Qasim.[220]

The anti-imperialist and anti-communist Iraqi Ba'ath Party overthrew and executed Qasim in a violent coup on February 8, 1963. While there have been persistent rumors that the CIA orchestrated the coup, declassified documents and the testimony of former CIA officers indicate that there was no direct American involvement, although the CIA was actively seeking a suitable replacement for Qasim within the Iraqi military and had been informed of an earlier Ba'athist coup plot,[221] the Kennedy administration was pleased with the outcome and ultimately approved a $55 million arms deal for Iraq.[222]


Kennedy in motorcade in Patrick Street, Cork, in Ireland on June 28, 1963

During his four-day visit to his ancestral home of Ireland in June 1963,[223] 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.[224] He also became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament).

List of international trips[edit]

Kennedy made eight international trips during his presidency.[225]

Countries visited by Kennedy during his presidency.
Dates Country Locations Details
1 May 16–18, 1961  Canada Ottawa State visit. Met with Governor General Georges Vanier and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Addressed parliament.
2 May 31 – June 3, 1961  France Paris State visit. Addressed North Atlantic Council. Met with President Charles de Gaulle.
June 3–4, 1961  Austria Vienna Met with President Adolf Schärf. held talks with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
June 4–5, 1961  United Kingdom London Private visit. Met with Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
3 December 16–17, 1961  Venezuela Caracas Met with President Rómulo Betancourt.
December 17, 1961  Colombia Bogota Met with President Alberto Lleras Camargo.
4 December 21–22, 1961  Bermuda Hamilton Met with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
5 June 29 – July 1, 1962  Mexico Mexico, D.F. State visit. Met with President Adolfo López Mateos.
6 December 18–21, 1962 The Bahamas The Bahamas Nassau Conferred with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Concluded Nassau Agreement on nuclear defense systems.
7 March 18–20, 1963  Costa Rica San José Attended Conference of Presidents of the Central American Republics.
8 June 23–25, 1963  West Germany Bonn,
Met with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and other officials.
June 26, 1963  West Germany West Berlin Delivered several public addresses.
June 26–29, 1963  Ireland Dublin,
Addressed Irish Parliament. Visited ancestral home.[226]
June 29–30, 1963  United Kingdom Birch Grove Informal visit with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at his home.
July 1–2, 1963  Italy Rome,
Met with President Antonio Segni, Italian and NATO officials.
July 2, 1963   Vatican City Apostolic Palace Audience with the newly elected Pope Paul VI.


President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, at 12:30 pm Central Standard Time on Friday November 22, 1963, while on a political trip to Texas to smooth over frictions in the Democratic Party between liberals Ralph Yarborough and Don Yarborough (no relation) and conservative John Connally.[227] Traveling in a presidential motorcade through downtown Dallas, he was shot once in the back, the bullet exiting via his throat,[228] and once in the head.[228]

The Kennedys and the Connallys in the presidential limousine moments before the assassination in Dallas.

Kennedy was taken to Parkland Hospital for emergency medical treatment, but pronounced dead at 1:00 pm. Only 46, President Kennedy died younger than any other U.S. president to date. Lee Harvey Oswald, an order filler at the Texas School Book Depository from which the shots were suspected to have been fired, was arrested for the murder of police officer J. D. Tippit, and was charged subsequently with Kennedy's assassination. He denied shooting anyone, claiming he was a patsy,[229][230] and was killed by Jack Ruby on November 24, before he could be prosecuted. Ruby was arrested and convicted for the murder of Oswald. Ruby successfully appealed his conviction and death sentence but became ill and died of cancer on January 3, 1967, while the date for his new trial was being set.

President Johnson created the Warren Commission—chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren—to investigate the assassination, which concluded that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy, and that Oswald was not part of any conspiracy,[231] the results of this investigation are disputed by many.[232] The assassination proved to be an important moment in U.S. history because of its impact on the nation, and the ensuing political repercussions. A 2004 Fox News poll found that 66% of Americans thought there had been a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, while 74% thought that there had been a cover-up.[233] A Gallup Poll in mid-November 2013, showed 61% believed in a conspiracy, and only 30% thought that Oswald did it alone;[234] in 1979, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that it believed "that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee was unable to identify the other gunmen or the extent of the conspiracy."[235] In 2002, historian Carl M. Brauer concluded that the public's "fascination with the assassination may indicate a psychological denial of Kennedy's death, a mass undo it."[231]

The assassination had an effect on many people, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Many vividly remember where they were when first learning of the news that Kennedy was assassinated, as with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, before it and the September 11 attacks after it. UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson said of the assassination: "all of us..... will bear the grief of his death until the day of ours." Many people have also spoken of the shocking news, compounded by the pall of uncertainty about the identity of the assassin(s), the possible instigators, and the causes of the killing, as an end to innocence, and in retrospect it has been coalesced with other changes of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, especially the Vietnam War.

Historical reputation[edit]

Eternal Flame at the Kennedy grave site, Arlington National Cemetery

Historians and political scientists tend to rank Kennedy as good president. Assessments of his policies are mixed, the early part of his administration carried missteps highlighted by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1961 Vienna summit.[6][236] The last year of his presidency was filled with several notable successes, for which he receives acclaim, he skillfully handled the Cuban Missile Crisis, as he avoided nuclear war and set the stage for less tense U.S.–Soviet relations. He also advanced the principle of equality before the law by supporting efforts to end institutional segregation and discrimination in the South.[6][236]

Many of Kennedy's proposals were passed after his death, during the Johnson administration, and Kennedy's death gave those proposals a powerful moral component.[237] Assassinated in the prime of life, Kennedy remains a powerful and popular symbol of both inspiration and tragedy,[237] the term "Camelot" is often used to describe his presidency, reflecting both the mythic grandeur accorded Kennedy in death, and the powerful nostalgia that many feel for that era of American history.[236] He is idolized, like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt; Gallup Poll surveys consistently show his public approval rating to be around 83 percent.[237]

A 2014 Washington Post survey of 162 members of the American Political Science Association's Presidents and Executive Politics section ranked Kennedy 14th highest overall among the 43 persons who have been president, including then-president Barack Obama. Then among the "modern presidents", the thirteen from Franklin Roosevelt through Obama, he places in the middle of the pack, the survey also found Kennedy to be the most overrated U.S. president.[238]

A 2017 C-SPAN survey has Kennedy ranked among the top ten presidents of all-time, the survey asked 91 presidential historians to rank the 43 former presidents (including then-president Barack Obama) in various categories to come up with a composite score, resulting in an overall ranking. Kennedy was ranked 8th among all former presidents (down from 6th in 2009), his rankings in the various categories of this most recent poll were as follows: public persuasion (6), crisis leadership (7), economic management (7), moral authority (15), international relations (14), administrative skills (15), relations with congress (12), vision/setting an agenda (9), pursued equal justice for all (7), performance with context of times (9).[239]


  1. ^ Four subsequent presidents were born earlier in the century then Kennedy: Lyndon Johnson, on August 27, 1908; Ronald Reagan, on February 6, 1911; Richard Nixon, on January 9, 1913; and Gerald Ford, on July 14, 1913.[2]
  2. ^ Theodore Roosevelt was nine months younger when he first assumed the presidency on September 14, 1901, but he was not elected to the office until 1904, when he was 46.[2]
  3. ^ Southern Democrats in several states who were opposed to the national Democratic Party's support for civil rights and voting rights for African Americans living in the South, attempted to block Kennedy's election by denying him the necessary number of Electoral College votes (269 of 537) for victory.[12][11]
  4. ^ Henry D. Irwin, who had been pledged to vote for Nixon.[13]
  5. ^ The groups were: American Jewish Congress, American Veterans Committee, Americans for Democratic Action, Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'rith, International Union of Electrical Workers (AFL-CIO), National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and United Automobile Workers (AFL-CIO).
  6. ^ Two hundred thousand gallons of defoliant were shipped, in violation of the Geneva Accords. By the end of 1962, American military personnel had increased from 2,600 to 11,500; 109 men were killed compared to 14 the previous year. During 1962, Viet Cong troops increased from 15,000 to 24,000. Depending on which assessment Kennedy accepted (Department of Defense or State) there had been zero or modest progress in countering the increase in communist aggression in return for an expanded U.S. involvement.[167]


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Works cited

  • Bilharz, Joy Ann (2002) [1998]. The Allegany Senecas and Kinzua Dam: Forced Relocation Through Two Generations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-1282-4. 
  • Blight, James G.; Lang, Janet M. (2005). The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-4221-1. 
  • Brauer, Carl M. (2002). "John F. Kennedy"; in Graff, Henry. The Presidents: A Reference History (7th ed.). pp. 481–498. ISBN 0-684-80551-0. 
  • Brinkley, Alan (2012). John F. Kennedy. Times Books. ISBN 978-0-8050-8349-1. 
  • Bryant, Nick (Autumn 2006). "Black Man Who Was Crazy Enough to Apply to Ole Miss". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (53). 
  • Dallek, Robert (2003). An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co. ISBN 978-0-316-17238-7. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Barnes, John (2007). John F. Kennedy on Leadership. 
  • Selverstone, Marc J. "Eternal Flaming: The Historiography of Kennedy Foreign Policy," Passport: The Newsletter of the SHAFR (April 2015), Vol. 46 Issue 1, pp 22–29.
  • Selverstone, Marc J. ed. A Companion to John F. Kennedy (2014) chapters 11-25 pp 207–496

Primary sources[edit]

  • Documentary History of the John F. Kennedy Presidency (18 vol. University Publications of America, 1996) online table of contents
U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
Kennedy Presidency
Succeeded by
L. B. Johnson