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John F. Kennedy

(1917—1963)


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(1917–1963)

US Democratic statesman and thirty-fifth president of the USA (1961–63). His brief term of office, cut short by assassination, presented the world with a vision of freedom and social justice whose impact has far outlived the legislative achievements of his administration.

The second son of Joseph P. Kennedy (1888–1969), millionaire banker, business tycoon, and US ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s, John F. Kennedy was instilled with a sense of public duty from an early age. Graduating from Harvard University in 1940, he entered the navy the following year. In 1943, the motor torpedo boat he was commanding was hit and sunk in the Solomon Islands. In spite of his injuries, Kennedy ensured the escape of his crew and subsequently received an award for gallantry. However, the incident left him with a chronic legacy of back pain. Influential Kennedy family connections in his home state of Massachusetts helped him to a Congressional seat in 1946 and in 1952 he was elected to the Senate. Kennedy campaigned vigorously for labour law reform and civil rights improvements and, as a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, advocated increased US aid for underdeveloped countries. While recovering from surgery to his back, he wrote Profiles of Courage (1956), which won a Pulitzer Prize. He became increasingly prominent in the national Democratic Party, his overwhelming victory in the 1958 Senate elections marking the start of his campaign for the White House. After a successful campaign for the 1960 Democratic nomination for president, Kennedy declared: ‘We stand today on the edge of a new frontier.’ Finally beating Republican Richard Nixon by a narrow margin in the presidential election, Kennedy was sworn in as president in January 1961, the youngest man ever elected to the office and the first Roman Catholic.

The new president's administration was characterized by youth, brilliance, and glamour, undoubtedly enhanced by the charm and good looks of his wife Jacqueline (1929–94). Nonetheless Kennedy was soon embarrassed when CIA-backed anti-Castro Cuban insurgents were crushed after landing in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in the spring of 1961. He was criticized on the one hand for supporting an attack on a neighbouring country and on the other for failing to give sufficient military support to the rebels. Following his meeting with Kennedy in June 1961, Khrushchev threatened the West's access to Berlin but later backed down when Kennedy mobilized US reserves. A far more serious confrontation occurred in October 1962, when Kennedy ordered the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. He blockaded the island and the world teetered on the brink of a US–Soviet conflict until, thirteen days later, Khrushchev complied with US demands. The crisis marked a thawing in East-West relations so that the following June, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Harold Macmillan signed the nuclear test-ban treaty that halted atmospheric weapons testing.

In domestic policy, Kennedy was closely assisted by his brother Robert Kennedy (1925–68) who, as attorney general, championed the civil rights movement and supervised a crackdown on organized crimes. (However, civil rights reforms were delayed by Congress until 1964, following the president's death.) On 22 November 1963, Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the attack but was himself murdered two days later. The brief ‘Camelot years’ were over. Robert Kennedy was also assassinated, during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. The youngest brother, Edward Kennedy (1932–2009), was elected senator in 1962 and remained in the Senate until his death, a prominent spokesman for the liberal wing of the Democrats.

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Subjects: Warfare and Defence.


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