The Early Years
John Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917. As a boy, he lived in Brookline and attended school there. Kennedy was eventually sent to a Catholic boarding school in Connecticut. He had to overcome various health issues growing up, including appendicitis, prolonged hospital stays for various ailments, and an injured back. Despite these health problems, he was admitted to Harvard University. He graduated in 1940, intending to pursue a career in journalism. By then, however, war was enveloping the European continent.
Just prior to America’s entrance into World War II, Kennedy volunteered for the army. However, he was rejected because of his bad back. Through the influence of his father and a friend, Kennedy did manage to get into the navy. As war raged in the Pacific, Kennedy was assigned different duties and eventually assumed command of a PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat.
While patrolling near the Solomon Islands at night, his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Two of the sailors on board were killed and the rest, including Kennedy, swam to a nearby island. Kennedy and the other survivors avoided the enemy and were eventually rescued. The incident further injured his back, which would lead to two future back surgeries. He also received a Purple Heart for his actions during the episode and was honorably discharged in 1945.
Eleven years later, while recuperating from one of the back surgeries, Kennedy wrote a book, Profiles in Courage, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize. He is the only U.S. president so honored. The book details the lives of eight senators who chose to act according to their convictions while serving in office.
Early Political Career
Kennedy’s political career began in his home state of Massachusetts when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946. In this six-year role, he often voted along the lines of his own convictions, whether or not they agreed with those of the Democratic party. In 1952, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate.
At the 1956 Democratic convention, Kennedy nearly won the position as running mate to Democratic presidential hopeful, Adlai Stevenson. Even though he was not selected, the occasion gave him national exposure. Two years later, he was reelected as senator. Then in 1960, Kennedy threw his hat into the presidential ring.
1960 Presidential Election
Kennedy won the nomination for president at the Democratic national convention and chose Lyndon Johnson as his running mate. The election was probably going to be close, and Kennedy needed Johnson’s influence to win the Southern states.
The 1960 presidential election pitted Kennedy against Republican Richard Nixon. The debates between the candidates spelled the beginning of television’s influence on national politics. The two men debated several times, with Kennedy slowly gaining a slight advantage. The election proved to be one of the closest on record, with Kennedy defeating Nixon by just over one hundred thousand votes (out of 68 million cast!). Despite the closeness of the popular vote, Kennedy won the electoral vote by a fairly wide margin.
Here is an excerpt from his famous inaugural speech.
“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, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
As Kennedy began his first term as the thirty-fifth president, a number of daunting tasks awaited him on the home front as well as Cold War issues.
The nation’s economy was doing quite well as Kennedy took office, and little changed during his administration. He did have two noteworthy domestic issues that became hallmarks of his time as president.
The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) that segregation had to end in public schools. Although the law was on the books, it was rarely enforced. Most public locations, particularly in the South, remained segregated. Kennedy took an active role in ending this process. Shortly after taking office, he used his authority to win the release of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. from jail.
Then in 1962, a black man tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi and was denied by a group of whites. President Kennedy then ordered the National Guard to make sure he was able to enroll. A year later, Kennedy had to intervene again to make sure two black students could enter the University of Alabama. This time, he had to send the Guard to remove Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who was protesting the enrollment.
Kennedy got the ball rolling for civil rights legislation but was struck down by an assassin’s bullet before he could ever see it come to fruition.
In September of 1962, Kennedy made a speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas. In the talk, he announced America’s plan for the space race. In part, he said:
“We choose to go to the moon. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
With that said, the United States embarked on a bold plan to land men on the moon by the end of the decade. Up to then and the year that followed, the space race between Russia and United States consisted of:
Sputnik 1—first satellite
Sputnik 2—first animal in space
Explorer 1—first satellite
Luna 2—first probe to moon
Vostok 1—first human in orbit (Yuri Gagarin)
John Glenn—first astronaut to orbit the earth
Valentina Tereshkova—first woman in space
In what was most humorous about the speech, NASA officials did not have a clue as to how they were going to manage to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. The space program had just gotten off the ground, and now the president wanted them to run a marathon. In addition, the U.S. appeared to be years behind the Russians.