History Column

JFK Assassination

President John F. KennedyPresident John F. Kennedy—Pulitizer-prize winning author, US Senator (D-MA), and America’s 35th President—was elected to office in November 1960.  At age 43 Kennedy was the youngest President ever elected; also the first Roman Catholic.  He argued separation of church and state, eschewed McCarthyism, and defeated Richard M. Nixon.  Kennedy, a pragmatic liberal, also beat conservative US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (D-VA).


Like Presidents Truman and Eisenhower before, Kennedy understood the geopolitical changes associated with World War II.  Communism was now the enemy and candidate Kennedy, in 1960, called for a New Frontier:  “We stand for freedom.”


“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed,” President Kennedy said on January 20, 1961.


As President, Kennedy challenged the Soviets in Cuba; then to a space race.  “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty,” Kennedy exclaimed.


Kennedy witnessed the east-west construction of Germany’s Berlin Wall; embraced an emerging Third World and established The Peace Corps.  “To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny,” Kennedy continued.


President Kennedy signed the women’s Equal Pay Act and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  “Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the control of all nations,” Kennedy declared.


Kennedy commemorated the Civil War centennial and welcomed leaders of the Negro March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  “The main target of the demonstration was Congress, where committees are now considering the Administration’s civil rights bill,” The New York Times reported.  “The legislation faces a filibuster by Southerners.”


“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love,” Kennedy concluded.  Then, tragically, on November 22, 1963—50 years ago—an assassin shot President John F. Kennedy dead.


“He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet,” The New York Times reported.  Kennedy was the fourth US President to succumb to such wounds.  Born in 1917, he was killed in his prime.


President Kennedy inspired Americans, especially younger voters.  His mantra: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.  Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”


The Newseum remembers Camelot, as the Kennedy era was known, with two JFK exhibits and an original film.  The JFK exhibit—Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe; Three Shots Were Fired, and A Thousand Days—runs through January 5, 2014.  The Newseum is located in the District of Columbia, open daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and closed on Thanksgiving Day.


The past was Kennedy’s prologue.  His past included wealth: Kennedy received a $1 million trust fund from his father in 1938.  Also education: He studied at the London School of Economics in 1935, and graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1940.  Kennedy also published his first book, While England Slept, in 1940 at age 23.


Kennedy criticized “England’s failure to increase defense spending in response to the rise of Nazism.”  Time and Life publisher Henry R. Luce praised his effort.  Interviewers described young Kennedy as “clear-headed, realistic [and] unhysterical.”  President Kennedy’s favorite book: Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 Guns of August.


imagesCAL9BX6MKennedy was the first US President to serve in the Navy.  In 1943 he received the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his conduct while commander of the PT-109, a boat sunk in the Pacific by the Japanese.  Again injured, Lt. Kennedy left the Navy in 1944 and joined Hearst newspapers.  As a reporter, he walked the Berlin ruins with General Dwight D. Eisenhower the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in 1945.  The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum recently published Prelude to Leadership: The [1945] Post-War Diary of John F. Kennedy.


President Kennedy, like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, belonged to the American Historical Association.  Historical writing, however, was not the career he sought.  Kennedy’s interest in politics began in the 1930s.


“Not in the sense of sort of being emotionally stirred about great issues, but really, just about the whole of my father’s interest in politics, in the [Franklin D.] Roosevelt Administration,” Kennedy told journalist James M. Cannon in 1960.


President Roosevelt twice appointed Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., a successful Irish immigrant, to serve as inaugural Chairman; of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission (1933-1934) and Maritime Commission (1936-1938).  He was also appointed US Ambassador to the Court of St. James (1938-1940).  Ambassador Kennedy foolishly backed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a Nazi appeaser, over Winston Churchill.


JFK took his first political step in 1946.  “Once I started, I worked damn hard, and I did the same thing in ‘52, as I am now doing, which may not be successful nationally,” Kennedy continued.  “Start early.  Try to get the support of nonprofessionals…and then it is just long, long, long labor.”  He represented Massachusetts 11th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953 and elected to the US Senate in 1952.


“The rewards,” Kennedy said, “are infinite.”  He married Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12, 1953 and, as Senator, received the Pulitizer-prize for his 1957 book Profiles in Courage.


“In politics,” Kennedy wrote, “the choice constantly lies between two blunders.”


In August 1960 Senator Kennedy chose Alexandria, Virginia to kick off the southern leg of his Presidential campaign.  The Alexandria Gazette reported:


“With presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in the fore…politicos…will stage what promises to be the largest political rally ever held in the city of Alexandria.  The rally sponsors…hope that spacious George Washington High School stadium, which seats 14,000 persons, will be jam-packed to a standing room only condition.”


“The affair will launch the Democrats’ national campaign in the south…The oratory, to which all else was a prelude, indicated the issues which will be most stressed…these bore down on the experience of Richard M. Nixon, the matter of foreign policy and the Communist threat.  It avoided the grating problems of [a divided] political party…the party platform on civil rights and sociological issues.”


“The Democrat did not ignore an extemporaneous tribute to Virginia…He recalled that [Thomas] Jefferson returning from a mission in Europe had come back to demand of George Washington why a Senate had been provided for in the new U.S. Constitution.  For the same reason that I put my coffee in a cup,” Washington was said to have answered.  “To cool it off.”  US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (D-VA) did not attend the Alexandria rally.


Kennedy became the third Democrat in the 20th century to be elected President without winning a majority of the popular vote, joining Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and Harry S. Truman in 1948.  Not all policy was good; not all marriage vows remained sacred, yet JFK’s legacy lives strong.  His last book, A Nation of Immigrants, was published posthumously in 1964.


What President Kennedy could not immediately accomplish his successor, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson later did.  Except, history suggests, for Vietnam.  Kennedy’s Presidential “tapes indicate he consistently resisted pressure to send American troops into combat.”


On November 22, the Newseum commemorates President Kennedy’s assassination with a Day of Remembrance.  The daylong series of events include themed discussions with authors like historian James Swanson, journalists, and filmmakers.  For more information visit: www.newseum.org.


Feel free to address any comments or questions to abitofhistory@gmail.com

~ Written by: Sarah Becker

0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes