Skip over navigation

John F. Kennedy

General Summary

Table of Contents

Context

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, known as JFK, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917. His father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., was a wealthy investor and a demanding father who expected his sons to be politically ambitious. When JFK was ten, his family moved to New York, and when it came time to enter high school, he was sent to Choate, a prestigious Connecticut boarding school. He became very popular with his peers there, but managed only mediocre grades. He had a similar experience at Harvard, which he attended between 1936 and 1940, while his father was serving as Ambassador to Great Britain and the tensions in Europe that would eventually lead to World War II mounted. In correspondence to the U.S., Joe Sr. advocated support for the British policy of appeasing Hitler so as to avoid a second world war. On a personal level, JFK felt continuously overshadowed by his older brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., who was regarded as their father's favorite.

World War II broke out despite the practice of appeasement, and America entered the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy," as Franklin Delano Roosevelt described it. JFK joined the Navy, where he eventually became the captain of a PT boat in the South Pacific. He became a hero for saving his crew after his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in August 1943. A year later, however, his brother Joe Jr. was killed flying a mission over Europe. When the war ended in 1945, JFK became the vehicle for his father's ambitions. Backed by Joseph Sr.'s immense financial and political clout, JFK was elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts in November 1946. He served in the House for six years, during which time the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union came to dominate world politics. At home, paranoia about Communism enabled a maverick Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy to conduct witch hunts for Communists and Communist sympathizers, a practice that became known as "McCarthyism." JFK was frequently ill during these years. He was diagnosed with Addison's Disease, a potentially fatal condition, in 1948, but cortisone treatments enabled him to fight the disease, and his condition was never revealed to the general public.

In 1952, JFK ran successfully for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, in a year that saw Dwight Eisenhower elected president. The next year JFK married Jacqueline Bouvier, a beautiful and cultured young woman who would become one of the most famous First Ladies in history. JFK was now one of the Democratic Party's rising stars. He spent 1955 and 1956 writing Profiles in Courage (evidence suggests, however, that JFK's speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, actually wrote much of the book), which was a best-seller and won a 1957 Pulitzer Prize. In 1956, JFK was nearly selected a the Democrats' Vice-Presidential candidate. Four years later, with the end of Eisenhower's second term, JFK's time had come: he won the 1960 Democratic nomination and defeated Richard Nixon for the presidency.

Early in his presidency, JFK butted heads with the Soviet Union and its volatile leader, Nikita Khrushchev. After a U.S.-backed invasion of communist Cuba in April 1961 ended in disaster at the Bay of Pigs, Khrushchev concluded that JFK's administration was weak. In autumn 1962, the Soviet Union began shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba, where they could be aimed at the United States from just a few hundred miles away. When JFK found out about these missiles, he imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba and pondered an invasion. For two weeks, the world was on the edge of nuclear war, until Khrushchev finally agreed to remove the missiles, ending the crisis.

Within the larger context of the fight against Communism, which played such a large role in defining American rhetoric and policy throughout the 1950s and 1960's, JFK increasingly involved the U.S. in a struggle to defend democratic South Vietnam against Communist North Vietnam. This confrontation would eventually escalate into the Vietnam War, one of the least successful and most costly military campaigns in U.S. history.

On the domestic front, JFK founded the Peace Corps, a volunteer organization that sent young Americans overseas to work in Third World countries. He backed investment in Latin America through the "Alliance for Progress," and joined with Khrushchev to sign a treaty limiting nuclear testing. At home, many of his policy initiatives stalled in Congress, but he intervened quickly to prevent unfair business practices by the steel industry, and offered cautious support for the rising Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his presidency, JFK managed to create a public image immensely attractive to much of America. He was the first "television President;" with his charm and good looks he took full advantage of that medium to capture and engage the hearts of Americans (indeed, the relationship JFK shared with America has often been referred to as a love affair). JFK inspired in many a powerful optimism and idealism, and he seemed poised to carry the U.S. out of trying times. His life and presidency were cut short, however, by an assassin's bullet on November 22, 1963, plunging the country into mourning. JFK's death was undeniably tragic, but it had the effect of cementing and amplifying his legacy. Though his moments of presidential brilliance were tempered by instances of uncertainty, particularly in reference to the Civil Rights Movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK continues to be revered and loved. How much more he might have accomplished, in a United States that desperately needed unifying, is one of history's most tantalizing questions.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us