Deputy Director, CIA (archival audio): This is a result of the photography taken Sunday, sir. There's a medium-range ballistic missile launch site and two new military encampments.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): How far advanced is this?
CIA Analyst (archival): Sir, we've never seen this kind of installation before.
Narrator: Only a few people knew of the existence of the surveillance photographs, much less the terrifying revelations they held.
In October 1962 the Soviet Union was constructing nuclear launch sites in Cuba, within range of every major city on the Eastern seaboard -- including the U.S. Capitol.
Evan Thomas, Writer: It's hard to realize how frightened they were. They had conversations about evacuating great parts of the United States. They had estimates about how many tens of millions of people would die. They really thought that war was near.
Narrator: Managing this crisis fell to a rookie president: John F. Kennedy. He was less than two years on the job, the youngest man ever elected to the office.
Thomas Hughes, Aide to Sen. Hubert Humphery: Nothing prepared him for this. The things that got him elected -- the acute politician, the charming vote getter, the-the money, the glamour -- none of it had any bearing at all on his situation.
Narrator: The qualities that had carried John Kennedy to the presidency -- natural rebelliousness, stubborn self-reliance, spectacular self-confidence -- had also led him to make mistakes and missteps that helped put the country in mortal danger. His predecessor in the White House, Dwight Eisenhower, had called him "Little Boy Blue" and thought his wealthy father had bought him the office. The Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, had taken Kennedy's measure at their first meeting a year earlier and he walked away believing he could get the better of the untested president.
If John F. Kennedy doubted himself, or quailed at the enormity of the situation, he didn't show it.
Evan Thomas, Writer: He had a very great ability to step back, to be cool, to be detached, to not get sucked in by the passions of the moment, to not just ride the wave.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: When he became angry, he tended to become very calm. There was a kind of burning anger in him that he didn't express very openly.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: This man was fiercely independent, intellectually independent. Fiercely. Kennedy had an unshakable sense of his own skills. He was confident about his ability to come up with the right answer.
He wasn't bringing people together in a room to hammer out a consensus. He was bringing people in a room to give him the best information so that he could make the decision.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: He had what he called the "great man" theory of governing. As a consequence, it put a lot of pressure on him.
Narrator: Now, at a moment of peril and uncertainty, he would be forced to answer the question that had dogged him his entire career: Was he as tough, as smart, as capable as he appeared?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Good evening my fellow citizens. Within the past week unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive...
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): Mrs. Lincoln... 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10... I was the descendent of three generations on both sides of my family of men who had followed the political profession. In my early life, comma, the conversation was nearly always about politics. Period.
Narrator: By the time he came of age, John Fitzgerald Kennedy inhabited a world of special exemption: the family estate in suburban New York, the summer compound in Hyannis Port, the winter retreat in Palm Beach. The story of his family's heroic multi-generational rise from the want of Irish famine might well have been a misty old folktale. The past was not the point in the Kennedy household.
Jack's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was one of the wealthiest men in America: an Irish-Catholic businessman who had grabbed his fortune in the WASP-dominated world of high finance, and then became a celebrated administrator in President Franklin Roosevelt's momentous New Deal government. Joe Kennedy expected his sons in particular to have a large effect on the world.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He's a model of what they're taught to emulate. He's striving. He's reaching. He's always on the move. He's accomplishing. And it was expected of them to do the same thing.
Evan Thomas, Writer: They were very pampered and enabled. They were made to feel special, which is good, and they were special, and they were made to feel obliged to serve their country; that was great. But they were also given a kind of confidence that it would always go well for them.
Robert Dallek, Historian: After the stock market crash occurred in 1929 John Kennedy didn't know that there was all this privation in the country. He never wanted for a meal. And it wasn't until he read something later in high school and college about the Depression that it registered on his consciousness.
Narrator: Even in the raucous Kennedy clan -- even among his eight brothers and sisters -- Jack stood out. He kept his own schedule -- usually late. He was apt to test the patience of his elders, unconcerned with rules, and loose with money. He plied shopkeepers with the promise that his father would pay the bill, whatever it was.
Robert Dallek, Historian: Jack would expect maids to take care of him, cook his meals, do his laundry, pick up his clothes. And so he has a very privileged childhood, except for one thing: that he is burdened by a series of considerable health problems.
Narrator: Jack almost died of scarlet fever in 1920, just before his third birthday. Two years later, a case of whooping cough landed him in another quarantine ward. Soon after his parents shipped him off to a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut, Jack's letters home began to include reports of his shaky health. At Choate, Jack's ongoing digestive ailments made him a reliable customer of the campus infirmary.
David Nasaw, Historian: Jack didn't know what was wrong with him. All he knew was that on a regular basis he would take sick, get a high fever, end up in the hospital, that he couldn't gain weight, that he couldn't run around and play sports the way he wanted to.
Robert Caro, Historian: He was terribly thin. He had recurrent bouts of nausea and vomiting, continual bouts of high fever, and he was tired all the time.
Robert Dallek, Historian: Joe Sr. worried that Jack might take on the image of someone who lacked the physical strength to achieve great things in life. By the time he was 17 years old, his health was so questionable, they sent him off to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to try and figure out what his problems were.
Narrator: Test results at Mayo indicated that Jack suffered from an intestinal inflammation called colitis. But the doctors warned him that he might have hepatitis, or worse, leukemia. When his blood count dropped to near-fatal readings, he made light: "they call me '2000 to go Kennedy,'" he wrote a friend, "took a peek at my chart yesterday and could see that they were mentally measuring me for a coffin."
Robert Caro, Historian: He never stops joking and laughing, even in the worst circumstances. When the wife of his headmaster at Choate comes to visit him she says, "Jack never stopped kidding around with me the whole time I was there."
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: He had to become very stoic, and at the same time he had to project an image of vitality. So although he was feeling poorly a lot of the time, he couldn't let on that he was feeling poorly.
Narrator: Joe Sr. refused to lower expectations for his second son, whatever his illness. "Don't let me lose confidence in you again," Joe wrote to Jack after a less-than-sterling report from the headmaster at Choate, "because it will be… nearly an impossible task to restore it."
Robert Dallek, Historian: Joe Kennedy, Sr., drives this point home to his sons. Joe Kennedy's message to them is: Second is never good enough. Only first. Only winning. Only being at the top.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Joe Jr. was picked out: "You're going to be President," and Joe was determined to please Dad, and was going to do whatever Dad wanted. He was a familiar type: student body president, captain of teams, best-looking boy, destined for success.
Jack was one step away. Yes, he wanted to please Dad, but he might think about it for a second. And there stirred in him a little quiet, and maybe even more than quiet, rebellion.
David Nasaw, Historian: The problem with Jack, at least for his father, is he doesn't take anything seriously. Nothing.
At Choate, where there is a strict prep school behavioral code, where the last thing you do is snicker or make fun of your teachers or talk behind their backs, Jack just can't help himself. The more pompous the headmaster, the more ridiculous the speeches at chapel, the more he feels absolutely compelled not only to make fun himself but to draw his circle of friends in. When he organizes a prank, all the other boys are in.
Narrator: Jack Kennedy was a capable student in the courses he liked, indifferent to those he didn't. His acquaintance with the rules of spelling and grammar appeared fleeting. He spent much of his depleted energy on campus high-jinks... or romance. Even in high school, his roster of conquest was a source of wonderment. "It can't be my good looks," he wrote to a Choate friend, "because I'm not much handsomer than anybody else. It must be my personality."
When Jack announced his decision to join his prep-school friends at Princeton instead of following Joe Jr. to Harvard, his father made his disappointment known: "You want to get away from your brother, I take it. Too much competition."
Fall term 1936, Jack enrolled at Harvard.
Evan Thomas, Writer: The Kennedys were a loving family but bitterly competitive. This comes from the father, but it becomes entrenched in them. They were always putting each other down -- verbally, games, sailing, touch football -- nonstop competition. And a lot of it's joyous but there's an edge there too, almost a meanness.
Narrator: Where Joe Jr. and Jack were concerned, friends remembered, "everything was a contest, whether a swim in the pool or a race to the breakfast table."
David Nasaw, Historian: Jack was always smaller, punier. He never gave up, and he always got beat up. It was par for the course.
Robert Dallek, Historian: Jack would indulge in these sort of hit-and-run attacks. And it would frustrate Joe Jr., who would dash after him. But Jack was fast, and Joe wouldn't necessarily catch him. And so Jack learned how to compete in an effective way, in a world where he wasn't always the biggest, the strongest, the smartest.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Bye, Rosie.
Rose Kennedy (archival): Bye Jack.
Narrator: At the end of Jack's sophomore year at Harvard, Joe Kennedy took a new job in London as ambassador to America's most important ally. Jack trailed his father across the Atlantic a few months later for a summer's work in his father's new office.
Robert Dallek, Historian: When Joe Kennedy, Sr., became ambassador to Great Britain in 1938, it opened up a world for Jack which he had not quite glimpsed before. There was his father at the center of British social life, and it allowed Jack to make intellectual as well as social contacts with the most important people in Great Britain, and to engage in conversation and intellectual exchange, which stimulated him greatly. These were the roots of his interest in international affairs.
Narrator: Jack had a front row seat that summer, in the most consequential season of international gamesmanship in a generation. The German leader, Adolf Hitler, had spent the previous five years building the most powerful military Europe had ever seen, and in 1938, he was showing signs he might use it. Hitler had already frightened Austria into accepting annexation and he was menacing Czechoslovakia and Poland. The rest of Europe -- and America too -- was trying to figure out how to handle the German threat.
Joe Sr. knew what was at stake for his country, and for himself. There was talk among serious Democrats that Joe Kennedy was in line for the Presidency... if Franklin Roosevelt decided not to run in 1940.
The Ambassador never stopped talking politics and policy, even when the workday was over, at the family's temporary residence, 14 Princes Gate, Westminster, London.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Joe Sr. loved to encourage spirited debate among his children, particularly at mealtime. One of his friends said that she liked to watch what happened at the dinner table. It was sort of like Joe would drop a depth charge and wait for something to explode.
Jean Kennedy-Smith, Sister: There was a lot of conversation about France and England, and what was going to happen with England, what would happen with America, and would we enter the war.
David Nasaw, Historian: Joseph P. Kennedy was convinced that if the United States was drawn into a war in Europe that it would ruin the economy. Democracy would be lost. The millions of dollars he had put aside for his boys would be lost, the America he knew and loved would be lost, and it wasn't worth it. Europe was Europe. It was an ocean away. And he figured anything was better than going to war with Hitler. So why not try to make a deal with Hitler.
Jack Kennedy listened to his father. And he sat and argued with his father at the dinner table about economics and world affairs.
Narrator: Jack was back at Harvard in the fall of 1938. He monitored from afar the international summit in Munich, where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain struck a deal to cede a small piece of Czechoslovakia to Germany in exchange for a promise from Hitler that he would stop there. He also saw his father congratulating Chamberlain for keeping the peace.
Joe Kennedy, Sr. (archival audio): When asked by the newspapermen this afternoon what I thought the chances were of appeasement succeeding, I told them I wasn't sure at all, but it was certainly worthwhile trying.
Narrator: Jack asked permission to spend the next semester back in Europe, so he could gather material for a senior thesis. U.S. embassies and consulates would be obliged to welcome Joe Kennedy's boy. He was back at his parent's home in London by March 1939, right around the time Hitler broke his promise to Chamberlain and seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. Jack headed straight for the Continent, and beyond, to see for himself what was happening.
David Nasaw, Historian: He questions people. He talks. He listens. He reads the headlines. He hangs out in the consulates. He tries to talk to the diplomats in each of these countries, and to the newsmen, the journalists.
Narrator: Jack got as near the action as he could get -- the border between Germany and Poland -- where Hitler's powerful war machine appeared to be massing for attack.
He was safely back at his father's embassy in London on September 1st, when German soldiers crossed into Poland, and German planes began bombing cities, killing innocent civilians. Britain was bound by treaty to defend its ally, Poland, and Jack was at the House of Commons to hear the war talk. He was on the streets, watching, as England prepared for war and he listened in on Prime Minister Chamberlain's address to a nervous nation.
Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister (archival audio): You can imagine, what a bitter blow it is to me, that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done ...
Narrator: Chamberlain's weakness -- his dispirited call to arms -- was something Jack Kennedy would never forget.
The onset of war did offer Jack his first shot at public service and at public attention. When a German U-boat sank a British passenger liner with more than 300 Americans on board, Ambassador Kennedy sent 22-year-old Jack to reassure the survivors that the Embassy would get them safely home. "Mr. Kennedy," wrote a British newspaperman, "displayed a wisdom and sympathy of a man twice his years."
He arrived for his final year at Harvard with a self-confidence that surprised his professors, and a new sense of purpose. He spent his last semester grinding away at his honors thesis, "Appeasement at Munich." Jack's thesis cut against prevailing public sentiment, which held that British Prime Minister Chamberlain's actions at Munich had been dishonorable -- even cowardly. Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, he argued, had been understandable. Britain had been so lax in building its military in the previous decade that the Prime Minister had little choice but to go to the negotiating table and buy time.
The 150-page paper got mixed reviews. His professors found it "wordy," and "repetitious." But they had to admit it was an intelligent discussion of complacency in pre-war Britain. Joe Sr. was impressed enough to help get the thesis published. By the time John Kennedy graduated Harvard in June of 1940, his first book, Why England Slept , was on its way to the reading public. He hustled hard promoting his book -- and his big idea: Democracies had to be armed and ready to fight at all times, he said, the United States included.
Radio Announcer (archival audio): Good evening ladies and gentlemen. At this time we're indeed pleased to have with us in our studios, Mr. John F. Kennedy. This young man has a clear-headed, realistic, un-hysterical message for his countrymen, and for his elders.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): We must realize that we must always keep our armaments equal to our commitments. We cannot tell anyone to keep out of our hemisphere unless our armaments and the people behind these armaments are prepared to back up the command even to the ultimate point of going to war...
Narrator: The book was timely; Americans were beginning to wonder if Hitler's military could reach the United States. Why England Slept became a surprise best-seller. His father was near preening about Jack's literary success, a first in the Kennedy clan. When the Duchess of Kent told the Ambassador she thought the boy was awfully young to be writing a serious book, Joe said simply, "my experience is that my sons are very precocious."
They were headed in different directions, Jack and his father, on account of this war in Europe. The German Army had already occupied Paris, and appeared to be headed toward London, and Joe Kennedy was still advising President Roosevelt to keep the U.S. out of the fight. This was England's war, he said, and one they were likely to lose.
Roosevelt was actively distancing himself from his wayward Ambassador; by the time Joe Sr. was recalled from London, reporters on both sides of the Atlantic were calling him a Hitler apologist, a defeatist.
David Nasaw, Historian: Joe Kennedy returned in disgrace and in the minority. And at some point he decided he was going to make a speech defending his position. Joe had dozens of people he could have called on: journalists, newspapermen, historians, researchers. He had professional speechwriters working for him. But he asked Jack to do it.
Jack Kennedy wasn't a puppet. He didn't swallow his father's beliefs, and he said to him: You can talk about the need for compromise and for negotiations, but say over and over and over again that you hate Nazism, you hate fascism, you hate Hitler. And don't use the word isolationist or appeaser.
Joe eventually gave that speech, and he followed some but not enough of his son's recommendations, and ended up further on the outs with the Roosevelt administration.
Joe Kennedy, Sr. (archival): Of course there's a risk in any course of action. But all doubts as to what is the best thing we can do should be resolved in the one statement, how can we best keep out of war?
Evan Thomas, Writer: Jack initially defended his father's isolationism. But as time went on, he realized that the United States needed to help Britain, to get in the game, to fight for freedom. His father was dead set against American intervention; Jack becomes for it.
Newsreel (archival): Air cadet Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. reports for preliminary training. With other college men, he'll try for Navy wing...
Narrator:The older Kennedy boys were doing more than talking war in 1941. Joe Jr. signed on as a flier for the Navy, even though the U.S. had not yet entered the fight. Jack was no less keen to get his shot at glory, if war came. But he was unable to get past the military doctors. His poor health was impossible to miss.
Robert Dallek, Historian: When he was 20 years old he began using steroids, and it reined in his colitis, but it had terrible side effects. And it also began to cause deterioration of the bones in his lower back. So, he was rejected, as someone who would be what was called 4F.
Robert Caro, Historian:He spends five months doing calisthenics, lifting weights, trying to build himself up enough. He still fails the examination. He tells his father that he has to arrange for him to have a special medical exam, which basically means a fixed medical exam, to clear him so he can get into the Navy.
Narrator: The new ensign was assigned to Naval Intelligence in Washington, where he became an instant, if minor, celebrity. The Ambassador's son found himself at cocktail hours and dinner parties with Senators, Admirals, foreign diplomats, newspaper publishers. They all wanted to know what the boy author thought about the big question of the day: should the U.S. get into the war?
Franklin D. Roosevelt (archival audio): The sudden criminal attacks perpetrated by the Japanese in the Pacific provide the climax of a decade of international immorality. Powerful and resourceful gangsters have banded together to make war from a whole human race... Their challenge has now been flung at the United States of America.
Narrator: After Pearl Harbor, America needed warriors like never before, but Kennedy remained at safe remove, in Naval Intelligence. When he finally, with the help of family connections, landed an assignment to train with a new combat unit -- PT boats -- he pronounced himself "delighted."
Robert Caro, Historian: Now, you know, PT boats, they're known as the bucking broncos of the Navy because they're very light-hulled, and they skim so fast over the waves, so that each wave is a bounce. Each wave is a jolt. The men who served with it said he was always in pain.
Robert Dallek, Historian: This was rough service and it was terrible on his back. Nevertheless, he perseveres and gets assigned to the South West Pacific, which is where the action is, fighting the Japanese.
Narrator: Kennedy arrived in the Solomon Islands in the spring of 1943, and took command of a 56-ton attack boat, PT-109. He liked his 12-man crew, but was unimpressed by the higher-ups.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: He was a very junior officer out in the Pacific. He was on the margins of the war. But he saw how a military operated not from the top down but from the bottom up. And one of his favorite expressions was, "The military screws up everything."
Narrator: PT-109's skipper did little to distinguish himself in his first four months on duty. He and his men ran raids on Japanese supply convoys; they were shot at and they fired back, but steered clear of major incident... until a hot, starless night that August. Out on a routine mission, Kennedy had his vessel idling in open water, when a Japanese destroyer emerged out of the darkness, racing at 40 knots, and split his boat in half. Two of his crewmen were killed immediately.
It took Kennedy nearly three hours -- swimming around in the dark -- to gather the survivors onto what was left of his PT boat. His engineer, Pappy McMahon, was badly burned, in excruciating pain, and helpless.
They were still stranded in open water at daybreak. Mid-afternoon, what was left of PT-109 was beginning to sink, and it looked like they had been left for dead.
Robert Caro, Historian: They're drifting, holding onto the hull and drifting in the water, when he sees a group of islands about three miles off. He tells them they have to swim to it to survive. But how is McMahon going to swim? McMahon is wearing a life jacket. Kennedy takes one of the straps, cuts it, puts one end in his teeth, tells McMahon to lay on his back, and then he tows him the three miles to this island. And when he gets up on the beach he collapses.
The men who were with Kennedy that day, they all speak of his sense of responsibility, that it was his job, that he would spare no effort to try and get help for his crew.
Narrator: It took a week, but Kennedy did manage to get his crew rescued. "Fortunately," he wrote to his father, "they misjudged the durability of a Kennedy."
He made it out alive a few months later -- sent Stateside for medical reasons-- and when he arrived at his parents' winter home in Palm Beach his weight was down to around 120. His back was so bad, he needed a brace and a cane to walk. But he was also a war hero; the Navy had made a public display of putting two medals on his bony chest.
And the story of PT-109 made great copy read by millions.
Robert Dallek, Historian: The country needs heroes at this point in the war. And so Jack, in a sense, fulfills that role.
Here is this wealthy son of the famous ambassador to Britain, who didn't have to go into this kind of combat service, and they don't talk about the fact that maybe his seamanship was in some ways deficient, in that his boat was cut in half. His brother, who was in London as an aviator, wrote some letters to him that were kind of demonstrating in a subtle way how envious he was.
Narrator: Joe Jr., of course, was not going to be outdone by his kid brother. He volunteered for a dangerous bombing run across the English Channel, in spite of the fact that he had already flown enough missions to earn a pass home. Just minutes into that secret mission, Joe's bomber exploded over the English countryside. His body was never recovered.
"Joe's worldly success was so assured and inevitable," Jack wrote, "that his death seems to have cut into the natural order of things." While Jack remained stoic, as always, the depth of his father's despair was unsettling. "There is something about the first-born that sets him a little apart," Joe Sr. wrote, "You know what great things I saw in the future for him, and now it's all over."
David Nasaw:Historain: The thought never comes to Joe Sr. or anybody else in the family that now that Joe Jr. has been killed, Jack's got to step in and become the leader of the family and run for political office and become the standard bearer for the Kennedy family, because no one thinks Jack is well enough in 1944.
He's skeletal. You can't imagine that this man isn't dreadfully, dreadfully sick. And the pain from his back is such that he cannot stand up, sit down, lie down. It's unimaginable that he will be able to campaign for office, or hold office.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): Like many decisions in life, a combination of factors pressed on me, which directed me into my present profession. Period. I was at loose ends at the end of the war, comma, I was not very interested in following a business career.
Narrator: John Kennedy hinted in later years that he had entered politics to please his father, but friends who knew him best suspected the engine that drove Jack was his own.
When the Congressional seat once held by his grandfather and namesake, John Francis Fitzgerald, came open at the end of 1945, Jack jumped in feet first; he didn't mind if it antagonized every Democrat in the district who had dutifully waited his turn, which it did.
"You're not going to win this fight," one ward boss told Kennedy to his face. "You don't belong here."
Robert Dallek, Historian: He's seen as a kind of carpetbagger, an interloper. He didn't live in Boston and his opponents in the primary attack him for being a rich boy.
Narrator: Even his best supporters -- even his own father -- wondered if Jack had it in him to challenge the local Democratic machine, or to win in a field of better-known candidates. His health was still lousy -- "yellow as saffron, thin as a rake," one friend said. "He didn't seem built for politics," admitted another.
Robert Dallek, Historian: His father of course brings into the picture some of the very experienced Boston pols, and they see him as a work in progress. How is this really skinny guy, who doesn't seem all that eager to clap hands and "press the flesh," as they say, how are we going to convert him into a winning candidate?
David Nasaw, Historian: They sigh when they see this kid. He looks like a high school student. The major impediment to Jack is that he's not a very good candidate in the beginning. He's shy. He's withdrawn. He doesn't like going up to strangers or shaking hands. He talks much too fast when he gives speeches. Can't look at his audience. His voice is too high-pitched.
Robert Caro, Writer: He used to often read from a prepared text, and he would do it in a mechanical way. They were so afraid that he would forget his speech that his sister Eunice once sat in the front row, mouthing the words like a -- like an opera prompter.
Narrator: Long odds or no, Joe Kennedy poured money into his boy's race in 1946; he paid for thousands of hand-painted yard signs, advertising in print and radio, a professional polling operation. He distributed 100,000 copies of the New Yorker article about Jack's war heroics. "With the money I spent, I could have elected my chauffeur," he liked to joke. But his pride in his oldest remaining son grew as the campaign unfolded.
Robert Caro, Writer: His father is watching him one day, standing at the gates of a factory. And this mob of factory workers come out. Jack is standing there shaking hands, asking for votes, and the father is standing across the street with a friend. And he says, "I never in a million years thought Jack could do that."
David Nasaw, Historian: He taught himself -- with the help of lots of money from his father, and voice coaches, and political coaches -- he taught himself how to be a candidate. He taught himself how to look at the people he was talking to, how to speak slowly.
He spent twice as much time talking to the local parish and the boys' clubs and the veterans' clubs and the women's clubs. Whoever invited him, he went. He never, ever, ever stopped.
Robert Caro, Writer: This is a man who's wearing this canvas-covered steel brace all the time. And on long days of campaigning, that's not enough to try and hold himself up. So he has an Ace bandage, and he wraps it in a figure eight around his thighs and his back to give him extra support.
And this is the neighborhood of three-deckers. So if you want to knock on doors, which is what politics was then, you had to climb over and over again, one building and then the next. And he couldn't climb stairs in a normal way. What Jack Kennedy had to do was do it one step at a time. He put his foot on the next step and then pulled his other leg up. And these old pols would see him climbing these steps over and over, and never complaining. And they'd say, "How're you feeling? You're not feeling too good?" He said, "I'm feeling fine."
Narrator: He campaigned from sunrise to midnight, house to house, pub to pub, factory gate to factory gate, until he crumpled in a heap at the Bunker Hill parade -- on the eve of the primary. Some of the staff thought he was having a heart attack. Joe Kennedy told them to give him his medicine, and get him ready to campaign the next day, Election Day. He'd be fine.
Jack won going away, nearly doubling the second-place finisher's vote total in the primary, and now a lock to win the general election in the heavily Democratic district in the fall. The kid was a winner after all.
His likes had rarely been seen on Capitol Hill; he looked a kid -- skeleton thin, with wrinkled khakis, sneakers, seer-sucker jackets, shirttails hanging out. And he lived like one. He was always running late; left a trail of clothes and unfinished meals in his Georgetown townhouse for his valet to clean up. He showed up at his office as little as possible; took scant interest in constituent services and only middling interest in his committee assignments.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He's very bored by the day-to-day duties of a congressman, and he felt that he really didn't have significant power.
Narrator: He spent his evenings racing to movie theaters in his convertible, jockeying with the Washington trolley, a different girl in the passenger seat every night. Was it a movie star, the newspapers wondered? A socialite? Another airline hostess?
Robert Dallek, Historian: He's a playboy. He's a handsome young man. He wins that office when he's 29 years old, and he's really a celebrity. And he's enjoying himself. It was a period of great self-indulgence.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Even as he's this reckless, glamorous, playful youth, there was a kind of vulnerability. It's there.
Narrator: In the middle of the 1947 recess, a half-year into his first term, the young Congressman traveled to Britain to see his favorite sister Kathleen. "Kick," as the family called her, was the Kennedy most like Jack: independent, rebellious, full of fun.
During the visit Jack collapsed. The diagnosis was grim: a malfunctioning of the adrenal glands called Addison's disease. A doctor in London gave him a year to live. He crossed the Atlantic in a ship's hospital. The family told reporters waiting at the dock that Jack was suffering from a flare-up of malaria he'd contracted in the South Pacific.
The good news was, Joe Kennedy could afford the latest medicine -- and there was a new treatment for Addison's, a potent cortisone-based steroid. It got him out of his death-bed and bought him time. He told one friend he hoped for maybe 10 more years.
Eight months later, as he was beginning to regain his strength, 28-year-old Kathleen died in a plane crash.
David Nasaw, Historian: Jack was devastated. He'd loved Kick. It was the first time in his life really, and maybe the only time, where he didn't know what to do.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: It did make him a fatalist. He sent the signals of a kind of person who suspected that his time on earth was limited, and that he had to make the most of it.
Evan Thomas, Writer: He's lost a brother. He's lost his sister Kick. He himself has been near death. There is a sense of mortality that lurks in there but also drives him, that he's got to accomplish something before he dies, that life is finite.
Narrator: In his second and third terms in Congress, John Kennedy seemed like a new man: a man in a hurry, always on the lookout for ways to distinguish himself. He exploited his experience in foreign affairs and defense policy: got himself invited to Senate hearings as an expert witness on the military readiness of our European allies; criticized President Harry Truman for inadequate civil defense preparations in the wake of the Russians' first successful atom bomb test.
Robert Dallek, Historian: What interested him was the question of the rising tensions with the Soviet Union, with the civil war in China, with what was happening in Greece and Turkey, and how Harry Truman was responding to the dangers flowing out of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
David Nasaw, Historian: One of the great advantages of having a very rich father who's willing to spend whatever his sons ask for is that you can go on your own fact-finding missions. You can travel the world. And Jack does that twice in 1951. He talks to the journalists and the military men. He talks to world leaders and he talks to the opposition.
Narrator: For seven weeks, the young Congressman traveled through Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, French Indo-china, Korea and Japan. He returned home with a new insight: the United States was making few new friends in those places, and losing old ones. And Jack Kennedy went on national radio and television to deliver the message.
Announcer (Meet the Press, archival): Meet the Press! Our guest of the afternoon will be Congressman John F. Kennedy of Boston.
Reporter (Meet the Press, archival): What do we do in Indo-China then?
John F. Kennedy (Meet the Press, archival): Well we've tied ourselves completely with the French and after all the natives are anxious. You can never defeat the Communist movement in Indo-China until you get the support of the natives and you won't get the support of the natives as long as they feel the French are fighting the Communists in order to hold their own power there, and I think we shouldn't give them...
David Nasaw, Historian: Joe Kennedy had been invited to be on Meet the Press early on. He said, "No, I don't want to do it, but why don't you invite my son?" At the time no junior Congressman had ever been on. Only the biggest of the biggest stars in Washington were on Meet the Press. But Jack went on.
Lawrence Spivak (Meet the Press, archival): Mr. Kennedy, when I was in Boston last week I heard a good deal of talk about you. Many who thought that you would be the Democratic nominee for the Senate this year against Henry Cabot Lodge. Are you going to run?
David Nasaw, Historian: When Jack told his friends and his colleagues, "I'm going to run for the Senate against Henry Cabot Lodge," they were unanimous in saying: Don't do it. Nobody can beat a Lodge in Massachusetts. And Lodge is as handsome as you are, speaks as well, is as rich, and is a war hero. Don't even try.
Robert Dallek, Historian: This is a very storied family. As the old saying went up in Boston, where the Lodges speak only to Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God. And so, can he defeat this Republican? And especially in 1952, it's a Republican year.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: His closest advisors told him, "Don't do it. This isn't your time. Maybe you should run -- think about running for governor of Massachusetts." No, no, no. He wanted to run for Senate.
John F. Kennedy (archival): This is a great state with a great past and I believe an even greater future. If elected to the United States Senate, with all of my energies and all of my resources I will fight to secure that future for the people of this state and for the future of our country... oh shit... And I know that it is not a one-way street...
Narrator: Whether 34-year-old John Kennedy was ready or not was an open question in the spring of 1952.
John F. Kennedy (archival): And if elected to the Senate of the United States this November I will fight for the New England industry, which is so vital... Uh, can you cut that?
Narrator: An uphill race against Henry Cabot Lodge was just the sort of challenge the Kennedys liked. "Run Jack," was the word at the family compound. "You'll knock his block off."
The most gleeful warrior in the clan was Jack's younger brother: 26 years old, barely out of law school, hungry to prove himself. Jack took a chance on brother Bobby, and put him in charge of the campaign.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Bobby Kennedy had always wanted a role in the family, and he found one. He was the tough guy.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He does not mince words. He's someone who is intent on winning this office for his brother, and if it means stepping on toes, hurting people's feelings, so be it.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Bobby was able to come in and discipline the old hacks who were hanging around the campaign office, tell them to get off their duffs and go out and knock on a few doors, get rid of the ones who were truly useless. He passed around old Joe's money, put down the politicians they wanted to get rid of, made the deals that had to be made. Bobby's doing all the hard work, the dirty work, and it's liberating to Jack.
Jack was able to float up there, quoting poetry and being a sort of young Lancelot.
Narrator: The Kennedy campaign was not shy to exploit the special appeal of the young Congressman -- the young bachelor Congressman. His mother, his sisters, even Bobby's bride, Ethel, fanned out into parlors across Massachusetts, to sell Jack to a rising new bloc of voters.
Jean Kennedy-Smith, Sister: Women were not so involved as they are today, of course. And I think they were very struck by the fact that we were wandering around, trying to get them to get out and vote and get their friends to vote.
Jack came at the end and gave a very good speech. And people were very interested in him because they knew he was a hero, and he was young, and so they were very interested in how he did all this, and what he looked like and everything. He was a very easy candidate to sell, because he was good-looking, he had enormous charm, he had a great sense of humor. I mean, he was a real star.
Narrator: The polls showed Jack trailing the incumbent Senator as Election Day neared, but he was working hard to close the gap.
The demand of campaigning statewide -- the distances traveled across the rough Massachusetts highways -- was punishing, especially on Jack. "His mental courage is so much superior to his physical strength," Joe Kennedy wrote. "I sometimes wonder what the final result will be." Joe had another fear about his son's health: if Jack's Addison's disease became public, it could cost him the race, maybe even his political future.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Jack was losing weight. But the Kennedys said, "Well, it's just the campaign." Jack Kennedy always had a suntan. Well, they said, "Well, he's out and he's getting a suntan." Actually, that was from his treatment, cortisone treatments for Addison's, that darkened his skin. They covered all that up.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: A man who focuses on the word "vigor" in his public and private conversations must have in mind a sense of vitality, human vitality, as an ideal. Imagine the distance between the reality of his own physical troubles and his ideal of the vigorous, vital leader. Such a smart man would know this distance and understand the gap between reality of his own physical being, and the image he wanted to project.
Narrator: Jack kept working down to the wire. He still started his day earlier than his opponent, traveled more miles, campaigned later into the night. He would not allow himself to lose for lack of effort.
Newscast (archival audio): In Senate races, Representative John F. Kennedy scores one of the few major Democratic victories, decisively defeating in a tough battle the Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well, I guess you're glad it's over, aren't you Bobby?
Robert F. Kennedy (archival): I am, Jack.
John F. Kennedy (archival): OK.
Narrator: They were beginning to be seen together around town soon after he entered the Senate in 1953, two dazzling stars in Washington's normally dull firmament. Jack Kennedy was 35 years old, the most sought-after bachelor in the capital. Jacqueline Bouvier was a shy 23-year-old beauty, the belle of Manhattan, Easthampton and Newport. The couple had met at a dinner party two years earlier and had been warily circling one another ever since.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: She was engaged when she met him, and she broke it off very quickly. She wrote in her diary that she had an intimation that Jack would have a profound and possibly disturbing effect on her life. But he was worth it. She once said to her sister that to her, imagination was the most important thing she wanted to find in a man, and she said that's very difficult to find.
From his standpoint, she was very different from the women that he'd known, which were primarily his own sisters. Eunice and Pat and Jean were what one of his friends said "tawny, coltish women." They were energetic and they were athletic and they were outspoken. Jackie, by contrast, was cerebral and soft-spoken and they both had a kind of dry and sly wit.
Narrator: The romance was carried out largely in the public eye, and when Jackie agreed to marry the Senator in the summer of 1953, the press was invited to share the joy.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: They were so beautiful. They were so young. She was very stylish. Somebody in the New York Times wrote that she made the world safe for brunettes again.
David Nasaw, Historian: Jackie was smart, gorgeous, and although she had not been born into a political family, she knew precisely what to say.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Jack's closest friend, Lem Billings, actually warned her before they were married that she was going to be marrying a man who was known for his womanizing, and that it was unlikely that he would stop. And she later said that instead of being put off by what Billings said, she actually viewed it as kind of a challenge.
Narrator: "After the first year, Jackie was wandering around looking like the survivor of an airplane crash," a friend later remembered. Her new husband did not go out of his way to hide his dalliances from her. Jack Kennedy treated this as a matter of personal liberty, and betrayed little guilt. "He had this thing about him," said the man who introduced the Kennedys, "which was not under control."
And it wasn't just his womanizing that stunned Jackie. "Politics was sort of my enemy," she confided. "We had no home life whatsoever."
Edward R. Murrow, CBS News (archival): Let's go and meet the newlyweds. Are you there, Senator?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Yes, right here, Mr. Murrow.
Edward R. Murrow, CBS News (archival): Good evening, sir.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Thank you.
Edward R. Murrow, CBS News (archival): Good evening, Mrs. Kennedy.
Jacqueline Kennedy (archival): Good evening.
Edward R. Murrow, CBS News (archival): I understand that the two of you had a very much publicized...
Narrator: Whatever her misgivings, Jackie Kennedy had married a politician, and she dutifully accepted her role.
Edward R. Murrow, CBS News (archival): And you first met the Senator when you interviewed him?
Jacqueline Kennedy (archival): Well, I interviewed him shortly after I met him.
Edward R. Murrow, CBS News (archival): Well now, which requires the most diplomacy? To interview senators or to be married to one?
Jacqueline Kennedy (archival): Um, well...
John F. Kennedy (archival): Being married to one, I guess [laughs]...
Narrator: Over on Capitol Hill, however, the Kennedys' star power had less appeal. The young Senator's way of being set Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson's teeth to grinding.
Thomas Hughes, Aide to Sen. Hubert Humphery: Johnson looked at Jack as a person who picked and chose what he would like to do in the Senate. And the picking and choosing wasn't Johnson's idea of how the Senate ran, nor was it the idea of the other southern moguls who were in charge. Kennedy was the troubadour who came and played before the banquet and left before the dishwashing began. And I think Lyndon talked about him in exactly those terms.
Robert Caro, Writer: Johnson says Kennedy was pathetic as a Congressman and Senator. He didn't know how to address the chair, by which he meant he didn't even know the rules.
Narrator: What irked Johnson was that he couldn't depend on the man. Kennedy was often absent; he ducked the controversial censure vote on Joe McCarthy. And Kennedy's insistence on independence was maddening for the Majority Leader. Whether it was civil rights or labor legislation, Johnson couldn't count on the Democrat from Massachusetts to vote the party line.
Lyndon Johnson could be cutting about Kennedy in front of fellow Senators -- said he looked like a victim of rickets, and joked about his puny little ankles. What Johnson didn't see, was how tough Jack Kennedy had to be just to get out of bed in the morning. By 1954, the drug he took to control his Addison's disease was eating away at his spine.
Robert Dallek, Historian: It came to a point that in order for him to walk from his office to the Senate floor, he had to move across a marble floor, and it was so hard on his back, he needed crutches to allow him to put one foot in front of another, without excruciating pain. And so what he decides to do is to have surgery, even though it is a danger to his life.
Robert Caro, Writer: It requires the fusing of two large sections of the spine and a steel plate inserted there. What makes it risky is that he has Addison's disease. And Addison's disease leads to infections often during surgery.
David Nasaw, Historian: His father pleads with him: Don't do this operation. And he holds out the example of Roosevelt. He said: "Roosevelt was President and he was in a wheelchair. You can do it."
Robert Caro, Writer: Jack said to him, "I'd rather be dead than be in a wheelchair or hobbling around on crutches, in pain the rest of my life."
David Nasaw, Historian: Jack goes ahead with the operation. Hours afterwards, an infection develops. Fever spikes. Last rites are performed.
Jack pulls out, and Joe has him flown to Palm Beach.
Narrator: He would suffer a series of setbacks in Florida. The eight inch incision on his back would not close; he developed an abscess, needed a second surgery. The convalescence dragged on into 1955.
David Nasaw, Historian: Joe watches over him, hires his doctors, his nurses, converts a large part of their Palm Beach house to a nursing facility, and encourages Jack.
Narrator: The Kennedys told reporters that Jack's back problems were a result of war injuries; they did not disclose his ongoing need of steroids, or his Addison's disease.
Jack, meanwhile, began work on a second book, a series of essays about United States Senators who had risked their political careers bucking convention and party for a greater purpose. With the help of Library of Congress research files, Kennedy, his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, and a handful of Senate staffers produced Profiles in Courage.
David Nasaw, Historian: For seven, eight months, Jack recuperates. And only after a lengthy period is he able to return to the Senate.
Interviewer (archival): How does it feel to be back?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well I'm glad to be back here and have a chance to take part in what's going on. I'm sure my wife is too.
David Nasaw, Historian: He returns in pain. And he will remain in pain for the rest of his life.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): It is now my privilege to present to this convention, as a candidate for President of the United States, the name of a man uniquely qualified by virtue of his compassion, his conscience, and his courage...
Narrator: The 1956 Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, gave his party's youngest senator a starring role at the convention: the official nominating speech. And his performance helped ignite a Kennedy-for-Vice President boom.
Reporter (archival): How would you like to be Vice President with him?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well, I'd be honored, of course, if chosen, but I've always had my doubts whether I'd even be chosen.
Narrator: He wasn't sure he even wanted a place on the ticket -- Joe Kennedy had counseled him to steer clear -- but Stevenson threw the choice to a floor vote, and Jack Kennedy had a hard time backing down from a challenge -- even against the better-known and esteemed Senator, Estes Kefauver. Jack Kennedy liked his chances, and he liked the feeling on the convention floor: the delegates took his candidacy seriously.
Robert Caro, Writer: This whole thing lasted like 24 hours, before the vice-presidential balloting. And Kennedy makes a real try for it.
Lyndon Johnson (archival audio): Texas proudly casts its vote for the fighting sailor who wears the scars of battle, and that very senator -- the next Vice President of the United States -- John Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Robert Caro, Writer: For a moment, it seemed actually like he's going to win. But Kefauver beats him. He has to make a concession speech to Kefauver. When he gets up there, he's facing a sea of Kefauver signs. They're all waving in his face. And you look at Kennedy, who's always immaculate. At this moment he is not immaculate.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen of this convention.
Robert Caro, Writer: In fact, one point of the collar of his shirt is sticking out. And as he's talking, if you watch his hands, he has the gavel in his hands and he restlessly he turns it around. You saw a young man in defeat, and you also see someone who covers it up so well.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I hope that this convention will make Estes Kefauver's nomination unanimous. Thank you.
Jean Kennedy-Smith, Sister: Jack was very depressed, very upset. And Bobby was there. And he couldn't cheer him up. And he said, "Let's call Dad." So I remember when we all went to call Dad, and he said, "Congratulations!" he said to Jack. "That's the best thing that ever happened to you. That was magnificent. I don't know how you did that. Was absolutely great." He said, "Adlai Stevenson is going nowhere." He said, "He's going nowhere, and that's -- Kefauver's going nowhere. So you've just pulled it off, and I can't tell you how wonderful that was." And Jack came out beaming, beaming.
Narrator: Joe Kennedy knew what he was talking about. Stevenson lost big to Eisenhower, which made the Governor a two-time loser, and left the Democratic nomination wide open next time 'round.
Jack Kennedy understood the obstacles to winning the presidency in 1960 and they were not small. He was younger than anybody ever elected to the office. He had few legislative achievements to run on.
And, then too, there was his religion. In 1957, a quarter of the electorate still said they were unwilling to vote for a Catholic for President.
Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, Niece: There was a fear across the land that Catholics would be controlled by the Pope, that they couldn't think on their own, and therefore they weren't really really Americans in the way that Protestants were.
Narrator: Some in the party argued the country would change in time, that he was still a young man, that he could wait it out. Jack Kennedy thought otherwise. His star turn at the 1956 convention meant he would be taken seriously in 1960. He was not going to let this moment pass.
John F. Kennedy (archival): And I want to be sure that we haven't lost something important in this country, that we haven't gone soft...
Narrator: He had campaigned across the country for Stevenson in '56. John F. Kennedy (archival): ....that we just look to our own private interests... Let us cut the budget and let us save on foreign aid.
Narrator: And with his speechwriter Ted Sorensen riding shotgun he just kept going in 1957.
John F. Kennedy (archival): The reason the Communists attack us is because they know when the United States fails, the cause of freedom fails.
Narrator: There were county chairmen to meet in every state, delegates to woo.
Jackie was pregnant most of that year, and nervously so. She'd already had one miscarriage, and delivered a stillborn daughter. But her husband rarely stopped traveling. When Kennedy's new back specialist went to Palm Beach for a consultation, she, too, got the program.
Robert Caro, Writer: She comes down and there's this huge map of the United States, where his father and he are plotting out, you know, his next trips. He's traveling all around the United States, trying to make contact with politicians. And she says, "Well, you know, to do this you need periods of rest." And he says, "Well, there's no time for rest." And she says, "Well, you have to change the schedule." And he said, "The schedule will not be changed."
Narrator: When he was in Washington, Kennedy was always on the lookout for ways to take a stand apart from the other would-be Presidents in the Senate -- Stuart Symington, Hubert Humphrey, and above all, the majority leader, Lyndon Johnson.
Kenneth Harper (archival): This is a strike-breaking, union-busting bill, in my opinion.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Mr. Harper, this bill is not a strike-breaking, union-busing bill. You're the best argument I know for it, your testimony here this afternoon, your complete indifference to the fact...
Narrator: He dabbled in domestic issues where he saw opportunity, like in the nationally televised hearings into racketeering in the labor unions.
John F. Kennedy (archival): ... might tend to incriminate them. Your complete indifference to it, i think makes this bill essential..."
Narrator: His chief interest, and his focus, remained foreign affairs. His father even managed to talk Lyndon Johnson into giving Jack a coveted slot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Thomas Hughes, Aide to Sen. Hubert Humphery: When Kennedy said that he would become chairman of the African subcommittee in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he sort of got a commitment that it would never have to meet. And Johnson thought that was typical of the kind of committee that Kennedy would like to run.
Reporter (archival): Scenes like this are taking place daily all over Algeria, as French colonial troops round up natives by the thousands, in a desperate attempt to halt the guerrilla reign of terror that has spread the length and breadth of the colony. Sixty thousand...
Narrator: The bloody escalation of the three-year-old war for independence in Algeria gave Senator Kennedy a shot at the spotlight, and one that played to his long-held interest in foreign policy.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He identifies himself with a kind of anti-colonial posture, with the idea that the United States is locked in a contest with the Soviet Union for hearts and minds in the Third World, in the developing world, in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America. And he sees Algeria as the case study of the time.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I am concerned today that we are failing to meet the challenge of imperialism on both counts, both East and West, and thus failing in our responsibilities to the free world and to ourselves.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: What Kennedy was saying was: We know that French imperialism is going to die out. The question is: Are we going to be on the right side or the wrong side of history? If we make a choice now, we can help shape the outcome. If we align ourselves with Paris until the bitter end, the new generation of leaders in Algeria will remember that and won't talk to us.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I am introducing a resolution, which I believe outlines the best hopes for peace and a settlement in Algeria...
Harris Wofford, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Dean Acheson, the former Secretary of State, came out saying this speech was "the irresponsible utterings of a juvenile Senator," because it was throwing aside our alliance with Portugal and France and England, in support of Africa and Asia, etc.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: France was a NATO ally of ours in Europe. Were we going to abandon our ally for the sake of a group of revolutionaries who might turn out to be Communists? Kennedy said yeah, you take that chance, because you want to vote with the future, not with the past.
TV Host (archival): Senator, what do you feel is the single most critical issue facing the Congress at this time?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well, I think it's the same issue which has been facing us for 10 years, and that's our relations with the Soviet Union and this question of war and peace and also the question of whether the uncommitted countries, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, will move to the Communist bloc or our own, and turn the balance of power for us or against us. And that's obviously the most important issue of the day and will be during, I think, our lifetime.
Richard Reeves, Writer: When Sputnik went up by the Russians the surprise could not have been greater. How did they get ahead of us? The Russians claimed they invented everything: the car, the plane, penicillin, whatever it was. The Russians would always say, "Oh no, we had that first." This, they had first, and they had proved it.
Narrator: The October 1957 launch of Sputnik, a 184-pound, beach-ball sized satellite, spurred an instant jump in Cold War hysteria, and not without reason. If the Soviets were able launch a satellite into space, could they also reach the U.S. with nuclear-armed missiles?
U.S. Air Force bombers went on 24-hour alert. The Eisenhower administration began sending extra planes into Soviet airspace, just to remind Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who had the upper hand in bombers. When President Eisenhower pursued more -- and more potent -- nuclear warheads for the U.S. arsenal, the Soviets answered. Six in 10 Americans believed nuclear war was imminent, and would be catastrophic.
Kennedy appeared unruffled by the rising dangers of the Cold War; he increased his travel schedule, running harder, state to state, the list of delegates who had supported his Vice Presidential candidacy tucked in his pocket.
Robert Caro, Writer: Jack Kennedy could learn on the run. So he's traveling around the country, and he's seeing that politics is changing. He's learning that the power isn't back in Washington anymore; the power is with these younger people in the states, if he can just line them up for him. He's learning that the old party machinery doesn't work.
David Nasaw, Historian: He knows that he's got the money to mount an independent campaign; that he's got the charisma, without the help of any party bigwigs or any party establishment, to get his photo in on the cover of Time and the Saturday Evening Post and Look.
He begins a change in American politics that is quite significant. He signals the beginning of a move from party dominance and party candidates to the individual, to the personality, who can speak to the people not through the party but through television and the mass media directly.
John F. Kennedy (archival): It's a pleasure to have you here, and I want you to meet my daughter Caroline, and my wife Jackie.
Narrator: Joe Kennedy was nudging every editor he knew in 1959: You want to sell magazines? Put Jack and Jackie on your cover. Jackie Kennedy chafed at the requirement of public display, but when the photographers showed up on the Kennedy doorstep, she did not disappoint.
Thomas Hughes, Aide to Sen. Hubert Humphery: It used to drive Humphrey nuts, because he said, "Every time I go into the supermarket to go shopping for Muriel, I see Redbook or I see Good Housekeeping or I see Saturday Evening Post all with the Kennedys smiling at me on the cover."
William H. Lawrence, Journalist (archival): Senator, when are you going to drop this public pretense of non-candidacy and frankly admit that you already are seeking the Democratic presidential nomination of 1960?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well, Mr. Lawrence, I think there's an appropriate time for anyone to make a decision and a final announcement as to whether he's going to be a candidate...
John Seigenthaler: Journalist: It seemed to me that there was a sort of perpetual half-smile on his face. There was a sense of joy about what he was doing, that he loved what he was doing.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He's only 43 years old. And a woman says to him, "Young man, it's too soon." And he says, "No, ma'am. This is my time."
John F. Kennedy (archival): I am today announcing my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. The Presidency is the most powerful office in the free world. Through its leadership can come a more vital life for all of our people...
Narrator: Kennedy officially announced his candidacy in January of 1960. Political odds-makers put his chances well below Senators Symington, Humphrey and Johnson. And if the old rules applied, Kennedy was surely in trouble. The well-worn path to the Democratic presidential nomination went through the state party chairmen and the big city bosses, who still thought they could keep their delegations in line.
But Kennedy already had a handful of key players in every state, and a way to show himself a winner: the primaries. The handful of state primaries were regarded as side events before 1960 -- fine for junior senators like Jack Kennedy, but not worthy of serious candidates. Lyndon Johnson sat them out that year.
Thomas Hughes, Aide to Sen. Hubert Humphery: Johnson stayed in the Senate, stayed as majority leader, told everybody else who was leaving town that they should be ashamed of themselves and they should be back legislating, not speaking.
Robert Dallek, Historian: Johnson's supposition is that he's earned the nomination by dint of his role as Senate majority leader, he has very good relations with various party bosses across the country, and that Jack Kennedy is an upstart. "Who is this kid who's trying to displace me and take the nomination? I deserve it."
Hubert Humphrey (archival): Nice to see you. I'm Senator Humphrey, just stopping by to say hello...
Narrator: The most important early primary was in Wisconsin, where Kennedy had a real opponent: the popular Senator from neighboring Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey.
Hubert Humphrey (archival): Say, that's just what I need for my campaign, can I have that? I'm running short!
John F. Kennedy (archival): You should realize that you are voting for the most important individual in the entire free world...
Narrator: He cast Humphrey as the establishment candidate, and ran against the party bosses. And he cast himself, as the underdog, in spite of a huge advantage in money and television exposure, and having celebrity backers like Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra, singing (archival audio): K-e-double n-e-d-y. Jack's the nation's favorite guy.
Everyone wants to back Jack. Jack is on the right track.
Come on and vote for Kennedy, vote for Kennedy. He'll keep America strong.
Kennedy, he just keeps rolling a-, Kennedy, he just keeps rolling a-, Kennedy, he just keeps rolling along!
Vote for Kennedy!
Sandy Vanocur, NBC News (archival): Senator, good evening.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Good evening, Sandy.
Sandy Vanocur, NBC News (archival): How does the evening look to you?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well, as all election nights are it's a very interesting evening.
Narrator: He knew on Election Day he was going to win, but as the results came in and his margin was narrower than he'd expected, Kennedy began to understand there would be a caveat: the party elders could argue that his victory in Wisconsin owed to his overwhelming margin in the state's large bloc of big-city Catholic voters -- as if his religion had been an unfair advantage.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He understands, this is not enough. If he's going to win that nomination, he has to convince people in the Democratic Party and around the country that he can win Protestant votes, that he's more than just a Catholic candidate.
His sister, after the victory in Wisconsin, says to him, "Well, what does it mean?" He says, "It means we've got to go on to West Virginia." West Virginia is a state with 97% Protestant population.
Narrator: Humphrey started with a 20-point lead in West Virginia and the backing of the state's popular senator, Robert Byrd. He also got a new campaign theme song, the none-too-subtle anti-Catholic dog-whistle, "Give Me That Old Time Religion." The Kennedys answered in kind. Joe blanketed the state with money, buying the support of crucial local bosses. Bobby recruited Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., to allege that Humphrey had shirked his military duty in World War II.
Humphrey (archival): Jack Kennedy and I served in the United States Navy for five years...
Robert Dallek, Historian: And John Kennedy then dismisses this as a terrible thing to have been said about Hubert. And he keeps going around the state saying, "It's a terrible thing to say that Hubert's a draft dodger, a terrible thing," until it fastened itself on people's minds that Hubert maybe was a draft dodger.
Narrator: Kennedy left West Virginia on May 11th, 1960, with a win. He got in his private plane, outfitted to carry staff and press -- a first in presidential campaigns -- and flew off to primaries in Maryland and then Oregon, to pile up more delegates to take to the nominating convention that July.
Robert Caro, Writer: Jack Kennedy is going around the country. He's showing the country what he is: this charming, incredible, adept campaigner. The New York Times says, "The calliope sound of a bandwagon is being heard in the Democratic Party." All of a sudden Lyndon Johnson wakes up.
John Steele, Journalist, Time magazine (archival): Senator Jack Kennedy of Massachusetts has won every primary in which he's entered. He's won them in a breeze. Does this entitle him...
Lyndon Johnson, Senate Majority Leader (archival): Well Mr. Kennedy is a very effective and able young man.
John Steele, Journalist, Time magazine (archival): Let me finish my question. Does this entitle him to the Democratic presidential nomination?
Lyndon Johnson, Senate Majority Leader (archival): Well I wouldn't think that we would want to nominate our president on the basis of what four states or five states or six states or eight states might say in a limited primary system where only a few people participate...
Narrator: By the time he got around to announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, just a week before the party convention in Los Angeles, Johnson needed a miracle. So he pulled out his last best hope: he sent a private investigator to dig up Kennedy's health records.
Robert Dallek, Historian: They get to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, and Johnson unleashes his aide, a man named John Connally, and Connally issued a story about Kennedy's Addison's disease, raising the question of whether Kennedy is physically capable of serving as president.
Narrator: That Jack Kennedy suffered from Addison's disease was a fact beyond dispute, but the Kennedys disputed it. "John F. Kennedy does not now nor has he ever had an ailment described classically as Addison's disease," Bobby claimed. The Addison's story didn't stick, but Johnson kept fighting anyway; he still couldn't believe Jack Kennedy, of all people, could take the nomination away from him.
Lyndon Johnson, Senate Majority Leader (archival): For six days and nights we had 24-hour sessions. Six days and nights I had to deliver a quorum of 51 men, on a moment's notice, to keep the Senate in session and to get any bill a'tall. I'm proud to tell you, that on those 50 quorum calls, Lyndon Johnson answered every one of 'em.
Although some men who would be president, on a civil rights platform, answered none.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Let me just say I appreciate what Senator Johnson had to say. He made some general references to, perhaps the shortcomings of other presidential candidates, but as he was not specific, I assume he was talking about some of the other candidates and not about me.
Narrator: Kennedy parried Johnson with the grace of a sure winner. Bobby, meanwhile, was working the phones, keeping a white-knuckle grip on his brother's committed delegates. He knew Johnson operatives were still trying to peel them away.
California delegate (archival): California casts seven and one half votes for Johnson, 33 and one half votes for Kennedy. John Seigenthaler, Journalist: The Kennedy campaign thought they had every hole plugged, and were aware that if something came unplugged, they wanted to be on top of it immediately.
Delegate (archival): Senator Kennedy, 104 and a half votes...
John Seigenthaler, Journalist: And every delegation was covered.
Delegate (archival): Wyoming's vote will make majority for Senator Kennedy.
Delegate (archival): "The motion is that the rules be suspended and that John F. Kennedy be nominated for President of the United States by acclimation!"
Robert Caro, Writer: The next morning at 6:30, the phone rings in Bobby Kennedy's suite. It's his brother. He says, "Count up how many votes we have if we take the Northeast, the eastern states, plus Texas." Bobby Kennedy calls in two of his top advisors, Ken O'Donnell and Pierre Salinger. He says to them, "Count up these votes, plus Texas." Salinger, as he recalls, says, "You're not thinking of nominating Lyndon Johnson. You can't do that!"
Narrator: Kennedy knew how Johnson talked about him: "Little Johnny," or "Sonny Boy," "heard his pediatricians have given him a clean bill of health." And he knew his brother Bobby despised Johnson. But hatred was one of the few luxuries Kennedy could not afford -- not in picking a running mate. The numbers said he needed to win Texas to win the presidency, and there was one man who could deliver the state.
Harris Wofford, Campaign Aide: Robert Kennedy tried to stop it. He went down to try to persuade Johnson not to accept it, that the opposition to him was too great.
Thomas Hughes, Aide to Sen. Hubert Humphery: I remember how haggard Bobby looked, Johnson obviously had told him that he didn't want to speak to his brother's spokesman, he wanted to speak to his brother. If Jack had anything to say, he can call me. Here's my phone number.
Walter Cronkite, CBS News (archival): Senator Kennedy announced his choice is Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson of the state of Texas, the Senate majority leader, and his foremost rival for the presidential nomination...
Thomas Hughes, Aide to Sen. Hubert Humphery: There are many compartments in Jack's mind. I think the main one was that he wanted to win.
News announcer (archival audio):And there is the presidential candidate. The senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts. As he comes out of The Biltmore Hotel we come to his car. This morotcade will drive the three miles out here to the colleseum...
Narrator: John F. Kennedy had never lost an election, and now, against all odds, at age 43, he was just one win away from the Presidency. He was confident he could get there. What the American voters craved, Kennedy had come to understand, was a good story. And the set piece Kennedy would campaign on in the general election had it all: good versus evil; freedom versus slavery; a youthful paladin -- that would be himself -- and his powerful antagonist -- the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, who proved the perfect foil in 1960.
John F. Kennedy (archival): For the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do. Abroad the balance of power is shifting. New and more terrible weapons are coming into use. One third of the world may be free, but one third is the victim of a cruel repression, and the other third is racked by poverty and hunger and disease. Communist influence has penetrated into Asia. It stands in the Middle East and now festers some 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Robert Dallek, Historian: Khrushchev had come to the United States and the United Nations sessions in September of 1960, banged the shoe on the desk, and said, "We will bury you." We are grinding out missiles like sausages. So there was a heightened sense of competition. And this appealed to Kennedy's competitive spirit.
Richard Nixon, Vice President (archival): And I say we can't afford to have the White House as a training ground for an inexperienced man.
Narrator: Kennedy was certain he could show himself the better man in a race against the sitting Vice President, Richard Nixon.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I am not satisfied as an American to be second to the Soviet Union in sending a missile to the moon or sending Sputnik around the globe or having the second strongest arms...
Narrator: The polls, however, showed a dead heat coming out of the conventions, and Kennedy could not shake free from the mire of religion. He watched with increasing ire as Protestant ministers across the country stirred opposition among their parishioners. The Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. said he could not in good conscience vote for a Catholic. He instructed his flock to vote for Nixon.
Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, Niece: Oh it was very nasty. Let's just be blunt about it. For a while, he didn't really want to have to deal with it. He just wanted people to look at him and judge him on his own record. But it was getting so virulent and so scary that he then, in the fall campaign, went to Houston and spoke to the ministers, went sort of into the belly of the beast as it were.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Reverend Meza, Reverend Rock, I'm grateful for your generous invitation to state my views...
Timothy Naftali, Historian: His advisors said, "Don't do this. You are just making religion an issue. You are actually speaking to the bigots. The bigots want you to remind people that you're a Catholic. Don't do this!"
He did it.
John F. Kennedy (archival): So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again -- not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me -- but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.
Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, Niece: He was making sort of a moral, ethical argument about what it means to be American.
John F. Kennedy (archival): And this is the kind of America I fought for in the South Pacific and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we might have a divided loyalty, that we did not believe in liberty, or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened, I quote, "the freedoms for which our forefathers died"...
Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, Niece: And he said, "We would hate to have a country that millions of people who, on the day they're baptized, are told they can't be president of the United States."
John F. Kennedy (archival): So I want you to know that I'm grateful to you for inviting me tonight. I'm sure that I have made no converts to my church, but I do hope that at least my view, which I believe to be the view of my fellow Catholics who hold office, I hope that it may be of some value, in at least assisting you to make a careful judgment. Thank you.
Narrator: The general election campaign of 1960 featured a new wrinkle: the first ever one-on-one debates between the major party candidates, broadcast live, across the nation.
David Nasaw, Historian: In every campaign from '46 on, his father taught Jack how to use the camera as his friend, how to look into the camera, to smile, look charming, but be serious. It was no accident, no accident at all, that when Jack Kennedy debates Nixon, Nixon, the champion debater, comes off worse because Nixon doesn't know how to look into a camera. He doesn't know how to connect with an audience. He looks stiff, sweaty, scared. And Jack is totally, absolutely composed.
John F. Kennedy (archival): This is not to compare what might have been done eight years ago or 10 years ago or 15 years ago or 20 years ago. I want to compare what...
Robert Dallek, Historian: Nixon was someone who would sweat under the Klieg lights, and his makeup ran, and somebody later said, "He looked like a sinister chipmunk."
Richard Nixon (archival): I will concede that in all the areas to which I have referred, Senator...
Narrator: According to opinion polling, the majority of people who listened in on radio thought Nixon won the first debate.
John F. Kennedy (archival): ...if we appoint people to ambassadorships and positions in Washington...
Narrator: Among television viewers, the clear winner was Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy (archival): ...revolutionary times, then the United States does not maintain its influence.
Narrator: The split decision in the opening debate was a wake-up call, and through the next three debates -- and every day in between -- Kennedy kept hammering at Eisenhower and Nixon.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Can you imagine if this country elects Dick Nixon Republican President of the United States?
Narrator: He hit them for allowing Americans to lose their sense of national purpose, for allowing the U.S. economic engine to sputter as compared to the Soviets', for allowing the United States to fall behind the Soviet Union in science and technology, and most dangerously, in nuclear arms -- what Kennedy called the "missile gap."
John F. Kennedy (archival): If there is any lesson of the summit, it is that the Communists believe that the military balance of power is shifting in their direction...
Why wasn't the United States able to get an indictment of Castro by name?
David Nasaw, Historian: Jack was the representative of the new, young, vibrant generation. And Jack ran on that theme and ran hard.
John F. Kennedy (archival): The United States looks tired. It looks like our brightest days have been in the past. It looks like the Communists are reaching for the future, and we sit back and talk about the ideals of the American revolution.
David Nasaw: He says, Eisenhower was an old man who wasn't watching over the store anymore. And Nixon was his accomplice. And only this young hero, Jack Kennedy, who knew how to fight and knew how to win, was going to put the United States back in its commanding position again.
And there's a direct line between what Jack says in 1960 and what he writes in 1939, Why England Slept -- the only way to deter aggression is to have an impregnable military defense. And I'm the one who can build that military, because I'm the new man, the man of the future, the new generation, not an old, tired Republican.
Narrator: Kennedy opened a comfortable lead in the polls in mid-October, but he was careful not to get swept up in the energy and excitement of his rallies. The Catholic question still worried him, and the issue of Civil Rights demanded cunning political calculation.
He placated white-supremacist Democrats in the South, who insisted on their right to enforce segregation in their own states. But he also meant to signal his sympathy to the growing number of African American voters -- North and South.
Andrew Young, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: At that time, the 1960s, the black community across the South were largely Abraham Lincoln Republicans. My parents were Republicans. And I was rather cynical about the Kennedy family, that they didn't know any black people. There was a deep-seated personal suffering that we had known in rural South. But Kennedy didn't know any of that.
Narrator: Kennedy shadowed Nixon's position on Civil Rights: both candidates talked of promoting equal opportunity for everyone, but neither was willing to pledge federal power to actually enforce court-ordered integration of schools and public accommodations.
As the campaign headed into its final days, though, Kennedy found a way to separate himself from Nixon. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation's most respected civil rights leader, was arrested at a protest in Georgia.
Andrew Young, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: They put him in chains and put him in the back of a paddy wagon and drove him 300 miles south to Reidsville Penitentiary in the middle of the night. And nobody knew where he was.
Harris Wofford, Campaign Aide: Coretta King was six months pregnant, and I had never seen her panic, but she was panicked by this, and called me and said, "I think they're going to kill him," and, you know, "Can't you do anything?"
Narrator: Kennedy's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, went to see if the candidate might be willing to reach out to Dr. King's wife. Shriver knew the Kennedy political operation wanted no part of a civil rights controversy in the final days of the campaign.
Harris Wofford, Campaign Aide: He said, "You know, you've been trying to figure out what you could do that would help in this situation. You can't issue a public statement, but what about calling her and conveying your sympathy?" He said Kennedy thought for a couple minutes, and then a good Kennedy grin, said, "That's a very good idea. Do you have her number?"
On the airplane, Salinger asked Kennedy, what -- "Did you do anything when we were all out?" And he said, "Yeah. I called Mrs. Martin Luther King." And they went wild and Bobby was just livid with anger and fury, and fear that it was going to lose a number of southern states.
Narrator: Bobby eventually calmed down, and made a series of discreet phone calls to help free King. But Kennedy's team kept most of the maneuvering under wraps, and they did not talk up the call to Coretta to the national press. They were, however, quick to take advantage when Mrs. King went public about her sympathetic call from Kennedy.
The campaign printed hundreds of thousands of pamphlets telling the story of Kennedy's kindness to the King family -- and Nixon's silence -- and shipped those pamphlets across the country, many by Greyhound bus, to be distributed at black churches.
Andrew Young, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: The reaction that got the publicity was Daddy King saying, "I got a whole suitcase full of votes, and I'm going to throw them toward this Kennedy boy. I wasn't sure about a Catholic in the White House, but he's won me over."
Singing (archival audio): Kennedy is showing, that's why Kennedy is going...
Narrator: In the final push of the campaign, the crowds that came out were the biggest Kennedy had ever seen, but the candidate was spent, and edgy. He didn't like the feel of the race; on the eve of the election, he was sure Nixon was closing on him. He wanted to fly west for a little extra campaigning. His advisors insisted there was little left to do, and so Kennedy settled in at the family compound in Hyannis Port to watch the results come in.
David Nasaw, Historian: The house next-door, which was Bobby's house, was set up as campaign headquarters, and all the children's bedrooms were turned into research rooms.
As the returns came in, it was frighteningly close. There was a problem with the Catholic vote, which they had hoped would be 90%, was 80%. But worse, traditional Democratic votes in Protestant areas, were not coming in Democratic. Protestants weren't voting for Jack Kennedy. They were either not voting or they were voting for Nixon.
David Brinkley, NBC News (archival): We're trying to settle here, so far without any success, or without enough success, the closest -- one of the closest elections in the history of the United States.
Jean Kennedy-Smith, Sister: And so we just waited. Nobody could eat much. And calls were coming in from various states. Jack was over at his house. And Bobby would keep in touch with him. That's the way it lasted through the night. I finally went to bed and it still hadn't been decided.
Narrator: Kennedy didn't know if he'd won or not when he went to sleep that night; the press was unable to make sense of the vote totals out of Cook County, Illinois.
Lyndon Johnson, Vice Presidential candidate (archival): We still have some states that are uncertain, but I have my...
Narrator: Texas was neck-and-neck. Nobody could call California.
David Brinkley, NBC News (archival): So it's 6am in New York and I don't know how long we'll be here. Nobody's told us yet.
Chet Huntley, NBC News (archival): Ray Sherer, NBC's campaign and election reporter, is now standing by at Hyannis, MA. Is Senator Kennedy asleep do you know?
Ray Sherer (archival): He's asleep, Dave, he's gonna rise about 9:15. He got in the sack about 4:30. That'll give him about five hours, and he's gonna check first thing to see if there has been an word from Mr. Nixon and maybe there won't, in which case you fellas will have to stay on the air all day.
Narrator: When he did wake up the next morning, Jack Kennedy was President-elect. He had won the popular vote by less than a quarter of one percent.
Jean Kennedy-Smith, Sister: It was very nerve wracking, and then it was done. So we went out and played touch football. And our father came out, said, "It's time for lunch." And whenever he wanted, he got, immediately. He was a stickler for times. Jack and I were the last ones to go up. And he turned to me and said, "Doesn't he know I'm President of the United States?" And I thought that's a perfect ending to a day.
Narrator: Kennedy's razor-thin advantages in Illinois, and 10 other states had made the difference in electoral votes. His huge margin among black voters helped pull him through in as many as five of those key states. And the bet on Lyndon Johnson had paid off; the Kennedy-Johnson ticket had carried Texas.
John Chancellor, NBC News (archival): There he is, there he is, the next president of the United States. He always sits in the front seat and incidentally so does Mr. Khrushchev. These people find you can wave more easily from that point.
John F. Kennedy (archival): And I can assure you that every degree of mind and spirit that I possess will be devoted to the long-range interest of the United States and to the cause of freedom around the world. So now my wife and I prepare for a new administration and for a new baby. Thank you.
Narrator: John F. Kennedy had spent the campaign of 1960 telling the American people he would be a new kind of President. He'd promised not just dynamism, but strength; he had promised to stand up to the Soviets, and to protect American preeminence in the world.
His stubborn insistence on being the kind of leader he'd vowed to be would make his presidency among the most energetic, the most far-reaching, the most perilous, and the most tragic in American history.
Narrator: The biggest day of John Kennedy's life to date, Inauguration Day, 1961, dawned gray and frigid. Seven hundred trucks were already out on the streets, clearing eight inches of new-fallen snow from the east front of the Capitol. As the skies began to clear, 20,000 spectators crowded in to await Kennedy's arrival, and the news professionals hauled a bouquet of cameras onto a temporary structure rising high above the other on-lookers.
Earl Warren, Chief Justice (archival): Do you John Fitzgerald Kennedy do solemnly swear...
John F. Kennedy (arhival): I John Fitzgerald Kennedy do solemnly swear...
Earl Warren, Chief Justice (archival): That you will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States...
John F. Kennedy (arhival): That I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States...
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: It was bitterly cold, and Kennedy made sure, even though nobody knew he was wearing thermal underwear, he made sure that he would take off his top coat. He could show somebody who was vital and young.
Earl Warren, Chief Justice: So help you, God.
John F. Kennedy (arhival): So help me, God.
Robert Dallek, Historian: When Eisenhower left, at that juncture he was the oldest man in the country's history to have served in the White House. Kennedy coming in was the youngest man to ever have been elected. And so Kennedy wants to underscore that. He wants to emphasize the new, the innovative.
John F. Kennedy (arhival): 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 ...
Richard Reeves, Writer: Kennedy understood something that is not so obvious, and that is that words are more important than deeds. You can't govern 300 million people, or 180 million when Kennedy was president, by doing things. You can only do it by rhetoric.
Narrator: President Kennedy was talking to Americans that day, and to the world. He meant to reassure historic allies, and to exalt the virtues of democracy for new governments emerging in Africa, Asia and the Americas. He also had a direct and pointed message for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
John F. Kennedy (arhival): 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, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Julian Bond:Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee:There was enormous optimism. He was young, personable, attractive. He appeared to be friendly and disposed toward people of color. And so there's great hopes that new things would happen.
Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, Niece: His inaugural speech was how we as a nation are going to be great. The New Frontier. He was willing to challenge people. And I think each one of us wants to be challenged. We want to think that our life has a mission. And he understood that and reached out to it.
John F. Kennedy (archival): And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Narrator: The new First Couple glided through a half-dozen ceremonials, including a gala produced by the President's friend, Frank Sinatra showcasing the brilliant sparkle of American celebrity. Jacqueline Kennedy wore white gowns to almost every event -- her choice. Inside the gala, and the balls, among the colorful and garish gowns, Mrs. Kennedy stood apart.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Jackie once said that she would like to envision herself as a sort of art director of the 20th century, suspended in a chair over everything else, and orchestrating how everything would look. Everything was a scene to be staged.
Richard Reeves, Writer: People suddenly see this glamorous young couple from the upper class, who are almost impeccable in everything they do in public, and we want to be like them. This is the new America.
Singing (archival): When the saints go martching in.
Narrator: If his youth gave him pause, John Kennedy didn't show it. He appeared to be fearless. He ignored anyone who said it was too dangerous for a President to speak off the cuff...
John F. Kennedy (archival): I have several announcements to make...
Narrator: ... and held the first live televised press conferences in the White House. He would keep them up throughout his presidency.
Reporter (archival): Congressman Alger of Texas today criticized Mr. Salinger as a, quote, "young and inexperienced White House publicity man," end quote. And questioned the advisability of having him visit the Soviet Union. I wonder if you have any comments.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I know there are always some people who feel Americans are always young and inexperienced and foreigners are always able and tough and great negotiators. But also as I saw the press, he also said that Mr. Salinger, his main job was to increase my standing in the Gallup polls. Having done that, he's now moving on ... (laughter) to improve our communication.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Jack Kennedy did have what he called the "great man" theory of governing. And he felt that a leader with the requisite intelligence and persuasive powers, which included charm, I suppose, could have an impact. And he tried to model himself along the lines of leaders that he admired who had had that kind of impact.
Narrator: John Fitzgerald Kennedy demonstrated that this was his presidency from the start. He appointed Republicans to head the Department of State, Treasury, Defense and the CIA, and when progressive Democrats complained, he waved them off. He also waved off critics who said his 35-year-old brother Bobby was too inexperienced, and named him Attorney General. He peopled his White House staff with brainy and confident young men, and he wasn't shy about taking charge.
Evan Thomas, Writer: The Kennedys were part of that faith, that belief, born of the New Deal, of winning World War II, this sense that America's time had come. We had the best, the brightest, the smartest, and if you just get enough of those guys in one room, everything will be clear, and all problems will be solved. There was sort of a gleeful amateurism to them, this faith that if you're smart and vigorous and aggressive and ambitious, well, things will follow. This was a dangerous formula, I should say, but it was attractive at the time.
Richard Reeves, Writer: The system he worked out was kind of a spoke and wheel, so that he was in the center, he was the hub, and out to the spokes were the State Department, the National Security Advisor, whatever. And to get to each other, they had to go through him.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: In a way, it was quite improvisational. And he encouraged a lot of clashing ideas. He would sometimes give the same assignment to different people and see what they came up with.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: He wasn't bringing people together in a room to hammer out a consensus. He was bringing people in a room to give him the best information so that he could make the decision.
The problem with this system, was it depended on the president asking the right questions. If the president was distracted or tired, the system wasn't going to work well.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): How does a politician continually raise his sights, leave a job that required complete satisfaction at one time for a higher position, question? Part of the reason lies in the normal desire to move ahead, comma, perhaps a more important part lies in the recognition that a greater opportunity to determine the direction in which the nation will go lies in higher office. I've come to understand that the presidency is the element source of action.
Narrator: There was a lot on the young President's plate when he stepped into office: a weak economy, a trade deficit, ominous stirrings in the Civil Rights movement. Kennedy wasn't pushing hard on his domestic agenda: he wanted federal investment in education, a minimum wage bill, maybe guaranteed healthcare for the elderly.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): This is a memorandum to David Bale, bureau of the budget...
Narrator: What truly engaged John Kennedy at the beginning of 1961 was the increasing Soviet menace. Like most Americans, the President was worried engagement with the Russians might spark a hot war, or nuclear catastrophe. But Kennedy did not want to appear afraid to face down Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet premier was making noises about annexing democratic West Berlin and actively aiding anti-colonial movements in the Congo, Laos and Vietnam. Khrushchev was even making a play in America's backyard. He had been an ardent supporter of Fidel Castro in the two years since the revolutionary had taken power in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. mainland.
Thomas Hughes:Assistant Secretary of State: Khrushchev, as a kind of inauguration present for Kennedy, had given his big speech about national wars of liberation being the future extension of Communist influence. Kennedy made everybody read this. It was required reading in the first weeks of the Administration.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Kennedy definitely bought this idea of Communism on the march, that we were in this twilight struggle, that we had to face off against the Communists everywhere, that it was this almost sacred duty to face up against the Communist menace.
Eisenhower's formula had always been "all or nothing." Face off against the Communists and say, "We're going to go to nuclear war, or nothing." Kennedy thought the smarter thing to do was to be willing to fight small wars. It was called "flexible response." The idea was, you can't just threaten nuclear war every time. Kennedy bought into this idea that you could fight small wars, win them, check Communism that way.
Narrator: In early April 1961, just a few months into Kennedy's presidency, Nikita Khrushchev announced the latest Soviet triumph: the first manned flight into space.
Kennedy watched as the Soviets heralded their stunning achievement to the world, just as he was deciding whether or not to execute the most aggressive anti-Communist plot available to him: the takedown of Khrushchev's only real ally in the Western Hemisphere.
The plan for an armed overthrow of Fidel Castro in Cuba was a holdover from the Eisenhower administration. More than a thousand U.S.-sponsored Cuban exiles were already in Guatemala, training for the invasion, when Kennedy took office. At a meeting the day before his inauguration, Kennedy had spent little time asking the outgoing President about Cuba, and walked away with the idea that prospects for success were good; that national security required action.
Evan Thomas, Writer: They were a little bit ships passing in the night when they met at the White House in December and then in January 1960-61. And it's too bad. They needed to have a better conversation than they did. Eisenhower should have said to Kennedy, "Hey, take it easy on this. Make sure you really talk to the generals before you invade Cuba." But he didn't.
This really was a CIA operation. And there was a man named Richard Bissell, who ran Covert Operations at the CIA. Very ambitious, very aggressive. Wanted to be head of the CIA, was basically banking on success in Cuba carrying him there. And what Bissell was selling was the invasion of Cuba, that they were going to get rid of Castro, but also a whole world of covert action: that by subterfuge, the United States could get its way in the world. And the Kennedys fell for Dick Bissell.
John Seigenthaler: Assistant to Robert Kennedy:The only National Security Council meeting that I attended was the meeting at which the President discussed the Bay of Pigs. And I remember Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, said that once the invasion began, there would be a national uprising. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind -- nor, I think, as we left that day, in the President's mind -- that once the invasion was underway, that there would be a popular uprising among the Cuban people.
Richard Reeves, Writer: Kennedy had a real respect for the people in the intelligence agency, and made the obvious assumption they knew what they were doing.
Narrator: The President wanted to believe he could have it both ways. He hoped to overthrow Castro, without leaving behind American fingerprints -- and without poking a finger in Khrushchev's eye.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Kennedy does have some qualms about the invasion plan. It's a little bit too loud and noisy, as they say, and he wants to tone it down. So he's like a politician, he looks for a compromise.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: want something quieter. I want you to go on a beach, in an area which is far away from an urban center, so that this is not picked up. Set up a camp on Cuban soil, and then establish a government there, and make the government there responsible for air attacks, so that it's viewed as the Cubans -- Okay, we're helping the Cubans. But it is ultimately the Cubans fighting for the Cubans. Can you do that? "Yes, Mr. President."
Evan Thomas, Writer: The fact that the military's signing off on it just means, what they're really saying is, "This is a CIA operation. It's their problem if it fails." Kennedy is not sophisticated enough, not experienced enough to understand that.
Newsreel Announcer (archival audio): The assault has begun on the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Cuban Army pilots opened the first phase of organized revolt with bombing raids on three military bases....
Narrator: The invasion unraveled from the start. The initial air campaign on April 15th, 1961, was a disaster, and a very public one.
Newsreel Announcer (archival audio): In Havana, acting Foreign Minister Olivarez shows diplomats rockets fired from the Cuban raiders which he claims have U.S. markings...
Narrator: Kennedy sent his Ambassador to the U.N. to make a hasty and formal denial of U.S. involvement in the initial air strikes.
Adlai Stevenson, Chief U.S. Delegate to the U.N. (archival): The United States has committed no aggression against Cuba and no offensive has been launched from Florida or from any other part of the United States.
Narrator: By the time the American-trained and -equipped invasion force began its cruise toward the tiny Caribbean island the following day, the coup in Cuba was a poorly kept secret.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: The exiles landed in small boats at the Bay of Pigs, which is a very remote part of Cuba, not near any town at all. The Cuban authorities had heard about the invasion, and they were able to surround this exile force very quickly, isolate them, and begin to massacre them, kill them, capture them. And that put the President in a very difficult position. Either he had to commit U.S. forces to rescue this aborted invasion force or he had to deny all connection with it.
Narrator: While the remaining Cuban exile force dug in, the CIA -- and the military -- begged Kennedy to commit more troops, or at least okay powerful air strikes, in support of the invaders on that beachhead. The President demurred.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: The facts on the ground got worse and worse and worse for the exiles who had invaded, with U.S. support. It was a total disaster.
Narrator: There was no popular uprising in Cuba. Castro bragged about his stunning defiance of the United States; his popularity in Cuba soared. Nikita Khrushchev wagged his finger at the new American President, who had been defeated and caught in an embarrassing lie.
Of the 1,400 Cuban exiles who made the attack, 1,200 were killed or captured; many of the survivors were headed for firing squads.
David Nasaw, Historian: The Bay of Pigs is the low point not only of the Kennedy presidency but maybe of any presidency. As Jackie says, she had never seen her husband as distraught, as defeated. She caught him a couple of times just weeping.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: This is a decision-making that depended on the guy in the middle asking the right questions and getting the right answers. And it failed. And he knew who was at fault.
Richard Reeves, Writer: He was pretty depressed, sitting in his office, saying, "How could I be so stupid? Why did I listen to those people?"
David Nasaw, Historian: And as the days went on, he didn't feel better. He couldn't get himself out of this depression, he couldn't rouse himself. And at one point Bobby came to Jack in the Oval Office and said, "Let's call Dad. He'll make us feel better."
Evan Thomas, Writer: Right after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy calls President Eisenhower and asks to meet him at Camp David. And Kennedy says, "What went wrong?" And President Eisenhower starts quizzing him. He said, "Now, when you met about this, did you meet in a group and have a true back-and-forth, or did you meet with people alone, one on one, and not really have a full debate?" And it comes out in this meeting that Kennedy never really talked to the generals about what they really thought. And Eisenhower kind of shakes his head and says, "You know, next time you're going to have to do better, Mr. President."
Robert Dallek, Historian: It humbled him, but most important, it made him deeply skeptical of taking advice at face value from people who were supposed to be experts, in the military, in the intelligence community, in the CIA. And he realized he had to make critical evaluations of what people were telling him, and he had to be skeptical.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: He decided to set in motion really a revival of his administration, and it leads him to decide to do the sort of unprecedented, to have a second State of the Union speech. Kennedy's trying to revive his presidency after the Bay of Pigs.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant Secretary of State: Kennedy was always being confronted at the wrong time with the wrong problem. And he regards all these things as terrible, competitive distractions.
Richard Reeves, Writer: He learned about the Freedom Riders when he got his New York Times that particular morning, and it was a picture of the bus burning in Anniston, Alabama. And his response was, "What the hell is this?"
Narrator: In mid-May 1961, a group of Americans trying to focus attention on the illegal segregation of interstate bus lines in the South ran into more resistance than they'd expected. White supremacists in Alabama had firebombed one passenger bus the protesters were on, and beaten them bloody.
John Kennedy was 10 days away from a major address to Congress; he was also busy preparing for his historic summit with Nikita Khrushchev, which was just three weeks away.
Harris Wofford, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: He didn't want America's race problems to be splashed all over the press of the world, and therefore, out of the blue, learning about it, I answer his call on the phone when he suddenly discovers the Freedom Riders are riding, into danger. And he said, "Get your friends off those buses. Find a way to stop it."
Jullian Bond, Student Nonviolent Leadership Committee: There's a feeling that the Kennedy administration wants to treat the civil rights movement generally, the Freedom Riders particularly, as an irritant: These are people getting in our way. These are people upsetting our plans. These are people who are taking attention away from what we want to do.
Richard Reeves, Writer: At that time a Democratic president was totally at the mercy of southern Democrats. They ran the Congress. And they were segregationists. And he did not want to lose control of Congress over, you know, a few black kids.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: That was the battle in 1961 he didn't want to fight. And the President and Robert Kennedy reacted to this by saying, "Not now." It's politically understandable, but historically it's inexcusable.
Narrator: Kennedy was wary of sending federal troops to protect the Freedom Riders; he knew it would inflame white Southern Democrats. Justice Department officials called the protest leaders and warned them that the United States government could not assure their safety if they continued, and asked them to stand down.
Jullian Bond, Student Nonviolent Leadership Committee: The optimism that had enveloped the Kennedys, I think, from election day forward, began to diminish, and it kept going down and down and down and down and down.
Narrator: The Freedom Riders refused to suspend their campaign, though they held out little hope of federal protection.
"This goddam civil rights mess," Kennedy complained. He tried to satisfy both sides. He sent his attorney general brother out to make statements chastising both the Freedom Riders and their attackers. He dispatched a Justice Department aide, a Southerner named John Seigenthaler, to try to keep a lid on situation and to explain to local authorities that it was their duty to protect the protesters from the white mobs. This assignment landed Seigenthaler in a parking lot of the Montgomery bus station, where the local police refused to stand between the Freedom Riders and a group of armed and angry segregationists.
John Seigenthaler, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: There were people there that day who would have killed those kids just because they were black. I mean, they were intent on maiming and crippling and killing.
I think the violence visited on the Freedom Riders that day in that Greyhound parking lot in Montgomery shattered those hopes that the administration could somehow navigate through the troubled waters of race in the South. Certainly they understood that there were going to be problems. But this was one that required federal intervention; this was one that required sending in 400 marshals one afternoon. And once that was done, the idea that you were going to be able to navigate those troubled waters, you realized that was probably a false hope.
Narrator: Once the federal marshals were in place in Alabama, Kennedy changed the subject from civil rights. When he addressed a rare joint session of Congress four days later, the President mentioned civil rights only glancingly. He would say not a single word about the Freedom Riders.
"These are extraordinary times," Kennedy explained, and we needed to keep our eye on the most important issue -- the global struggle for freedom.
John F. Kennedy (archival): The great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today is the whole southern half of the globe: Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, the lands of the rising people. Their revolution is the greatest in human history...
Narrator: To promote the cause of democracy around the world, he asked young Americans to join the newly formed Peace Corps, and he asked Congress for money to aid emerging nations. He also called for a bold new move into the heavens.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take ... 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.
Narrator: The moon-shot had less to do with science and discovery than it did with projecting to the Soviets American resolve. Kennedy was scheduled to take his first overseas trip within a week of that address to Paris, Vienna and London. The most important leg was Vienna, where the President would be meeting face to face with Nikita Khrushchev.
Richard Reeves, Writer: Kennedy was very confident of his own charm and whatnot and he expected he could seduce Khrushchev.
Pierre Salinger, Press Secretary (archival): The President and Chairman Khrushchev understand that this meeting is not for the purpose of negotiating or reaching agreement on the major international problems…
Narrator: Kennedy had a big agenda in Vienna: he wanted to persuade Khrushchev to back off in West Berlin, to join him in decelerating weapons programs, and to suspend nuclear testing.
Pierre Salinger, Press Secretary (archival): ... and a general exchange of views on the major issues which affect the relationship between the two countries.
Narrator: The nuclear stand-down was the President's highest priority.
Robert Dallek, Historian: Kennedy had a meeting with his chiefs early in his presidency, in which they describe to him the plans for a nuclear war, in which they would kill 175 million people, devastate every major city in the Soviet Union and China. And as he walks out of the room, he turns to Dean Rusk and he says, "And we call ourselves the human race."
If there was anything that horrified in that presidency, it was the thought of having to pull that nuclear trigger.
Newsreel Announcer (archival audio): Paris, the city of light, outdoes itself in the warmth and splendor of its welcome to President and Mrs. Kennedy, here en route to the fateful Vienna meeting with Soviet Premier Khrushchev ...
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: There was a great deal of interest in that first trip. Jackie understood this. She studied very hard. She studied State Department documents. She hired a tutor to brush up her French. And when they arrived in Paris, people went wild.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris. And I've enjoyed it.
Narrator: The success of the sit-down with Khrushchev in Vienna was up to President himself. There were two long days of meetings on the schedule, and Kennedy's serious health problems had flared again.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Kennedy had wrenched his back on a trip to Canada several weeks before they went to Paris and was in a lot of pain, more pain than usual. He had enlisted the services of a controversial doctor.
Richard Reeves, Writer: Max Jacobson, Dr. Feelgood, who was unofficially his doctor, was flown over with his wife, the only two passengers on a chartered plane. And then they were kept in the hotel where the Secret Service was, so that the more mainstream doctors, wouldn't know that Kennedy was being pumped up.
Robert Dallek, Historian: Bobby Kennedy cautioned his brother against letting this guy, who some said was a quack, letting him shoot him up with these kinds of painkillers.
And, "Do you know what's in these injections?" And Jack said, "I don't care if it's dog piss. It makes me feel better."
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: A half hour before Kennedy was due to meet with Khrushchev, Kennedy summoned him to his room and asked him to give him a big injection, because he knew he was going to be faced with a long meeting with Khrushchev and he wanted to be able to withstand that length of time without suffering the kind of back pain that he had been enduring.
Narrator: Dr. Feelgood's cocktails were a potent mix of painkillers and amphetamines. Nobody but Jackie and Bobby knew about the injections. And nobody on the staff suspected.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: Despite all the briefings about what a crude, emotional peasant Khrushchev was, Kennedy couldn't have been prepared for what he was up against. Khrushchev thought of him as young, weak, ineffective, and probably a pushover. And Kennedy defended himself limply.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: Khrushchev wanted Vienna to be humiliating for the American president. That was the goal. There was nothing that Kennedy could say or do at Vienna that would have derailed Khrushchev's strategy. Kennedy walked into an ambush.
Robert Dallek, Historian: What he hopes to do is work out some kind of accommodation with Khrushchev over Berlin. The Soviets are chagrined by the fact that Berlin is a corridor of escape for people from the Eastern European satellite countries; that they're running out of there, fleeing Eastern Europe, where Communism is in control, to go to the West. And Khrushchev is embarrassed by this.
Narrator: The Soviet Premier was matter of fact in his presentation to Kennedy about Berlin. He was ready to unify the city under the control of his ally, East Germany, and to erase any U.S. and NATO presence in the city.
Robert Dallek, Historian: By the end of the meeting, Khrushchev says, "We're going forward. You press us, that's your problem." And Kennedy said, "It's going to be a very cold winter."
Michael Dobbs, Writer: Khrushchev talked about nuclear weapons in a very informal way that worried Kennedy. Kennedy, when he came out of that meeting with Khrushchev, was really shaken.
John F. Kennedy (archival): I will tell you now that it was a very sober two days. There was no discourtesy, no loss of tempers, no threats or ultimatums by either side, no advantage or concession was either gained or given, no major decision was either planned or taken. No spectacular progress was either achieved or pretended.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: He assumed certain things about Khrushchev that proved to be wrong. If this guy doesn't share my concern about nuclear danger, how am I going to deal with him over Europe? There was no ground that he could see for compromise. And that left Kennedy in a very dangerous situation. It left the country in a dangerous situation.
Narrator: The President found it increasingly difficult to read Nikita Khrushchev in the months after Vienna. The Soviet leader kept Kennedy off balance. He backed off on his Berlin threat, building a wall around the Soviet-controlled sector of the city to stem the flood of defectors, but leaving in place the post-war agreements between East and West. Then -- in spite of Kennedy's direct warnings -- he restarted Soviet nuclear testing.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: Khrushchev's decision to resume testing in summer of 1961 -- not just any kind of testing; he decided to detonate the largest bomb ever detonated before -- put Kennedy in a difficult position.
He has many advisors who are arguing, "You've got to resume testing," and he doesn't want to do it. And he keeps putting it off, hoping that something will happen in the negotiations with the Soviets. The nuclear scientists are arguing that you need to do it. We're going to make bombs better and more effective, more efficient. It's the time when they start thinking about a neutron bomb. And Kennedy is much less interested in all of that than he is in trying to keep the world away from the brink of nuclear war.
Narrator: Kennedy believed he had to show strength. And asking Congress to fund an increasing buildup of military capability and weapons systems wasn't enough. He decided to make a stand in a country in Southeast Asia few Americans had ever heard of: Vietnam. The Communist-backed Viet Cong appeared to be winning there.
Robert Dallek, Historian: There were people urging Kennedy to understand that if the Viet Cong guerillas succeed in South Vietnam, it's going to be seen as a model for guerilla warfare in other developing nations. And so beating back this insurgency not only saves Vietnam from Communism, but it's going to discourage the guerilla campaigns in other Third World countries.
Having suffered setbacks and not ousting Castro from Cuba, having sort of lost the debate, so to speak, in Vienna with Khrushchev, being under the gun in relation to Berlin, he feels he can't step aside on Vietnam, however marginal it may be in his own mind and in the minds of some others telling him that this piece of territory is not all that important to America's strategic security.
Narrator: Kennedy was wary of being drawn into another debacle like Bay of Pigs. He asked the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, and his only trusted military adviser, General Maxwell Taylor, to give him a reasonable plan. He wanted them to assess the U.S.'s chosen ally there, President Ngo Dinh Diem, to determine the popularity of his South Vietnamese government, and the strength of his military. He asked brother Bobby to stay in the loop too.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: Maxwell Taylor and Robert McNamara lay out for Kennedy in late 1961 a set of proposals to manage the problem in South Vietnam, and that involves sending troops. The understanding is that those troops will not engage in combat. Kennedy wanted it to be South Vietnam fighting South Vietnam's war, with American help.
Evan Thomas, Writer: And the idea is that guerilla fighters are going to win the hearts and minds of the populace against the Communists, that they're going to fight fire with fire, they're going to fight dirty if they have to, but they're also going to build schools and hospitals. And the Green Berets get started in the military. The regular military doesn't really like this very much. But Bobby Kennedy likes it, and the Kennedys generally like it, and they go to demonstrations of Green Berets swinging from the branches and jumping from trees. And it becomes a kind of fad, but really informs our early Vietnam policy. We would go in there to fight a guerilla war.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: His preference is to use covert action and the CIA to build up allies in a state and let them fight the overt military conflict. Kennedy was on the forefront of believing that these paramilitary activities were a better use of force. And American special forces officers could help as advisors.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: The more Kennedy talked about counterinsurgency in his press conferences, and the more the line was set that the Russian challenge was going to be informal warfare, the more everybody sort of climbed on board that boat. Bobby had a green beret on his desk in the Justice Department, to symbolize where our hearts and minds were.
Narrator: The pressures of presidency were taking a heavy toll on Kennedy's health. He required as many as seven injections of Novocain in his back in a single day, and was still often unable to bend over to put on his own socks. He was on Codeine, Demerol and Methadone for pain, corticosteroids to control his Addison's disease, paregoric for his bad digestion. He sometimes needed Nembutal to help him sleep. His nights were often long and uncomfortable.
When the 44-year-old President was feeling down, or awake and pacing in the middle of the night, he would pick up the phone and call New York or Palm Beach or Hyannis Port, and hear the friendly voice of Joe Sr.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: He didn't intrude on specific policies, but the fact that he was there, that he could share his experience and his point of view, was very important to Jack. And in December of 1961, he had a debilitating stroke and never regained his power of speech.
Kennedy would continue to call him on the phone, and would sort of fill him in on events and people and things that were happening, but all that he heard at the other end of he line were sort of guttural grunts in reply.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: When somebody proposed writing a book about the first Kennedy year, he said, "Why would anybody want to write a book about disasters. I've lost Bay of Pigs. I had a terrible confrontation with Khrushchev in Vienna. The Berlin Wall went up."
Robert Dallek, Historian: He sees his first year as a pretty miserable experience, and there's no significant gain he can point to either on the domestic or the foreign scene. And so he's badly frustrated.
Narrator: She didn't talk much, or give speeches; politics unnerved her. She was shy to begin with, and unsure how to find common ground with most of her fellow Americans. But once Jacqueline Kennedy settled in as First Lady, she came to appreciate the singular advantage of life in the White House: she could be walled away from the general run of voters and still satisfy their hunger for her.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Jackie was a great student of 18th and 19th century Europe. And she really set out to create a kind of court in the White House. Her dress designer, Oleg Cassini, even said that she wanted to create a Versailles in Washington, and part of that was not only to project elegance, but it was also to kind of raise the game and put a premium on celebrating beauty, first of all, and a level of intellectual engagement, and celebrating artists and writers and performers in ways that hadn't been done, certainly in the Eisenhower administration.
Narrator: John Kennedy's taste ran more to political biography and spy novels, Sinatra and show tunes. So Jackie learned to strike hard bargains, like the time the President sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger to ask her to attend a publicity event he couldn't make. Salinger failed.
Richard Reeves, Writer: Jack Kennedy said, "I'll try." He went up. He was upstairs for 20 minutes, and he came back down and said she was going to do it. And Salinger said, "What did you have to give her? A new dress?" And he said, "Worse than that. Two symphonies."
Narrator: Jackie Kennedy spent much of her time and energy in the first year restoring the White House. She raised more than a million dollars for the project, hired an expert on American antiquities and decorative arts, along with her favorite interior designer from Paris, and remade the stodgy old pile. Her passion for the project was evident, which Dr. Martin Luther King learned when a Kennedy aide, Harris Wofford, sneaked him into the private residence for a meeting with the President.
Harris Wofford, Special Assistant on Civil Rights: Kennedy had to tell King that there would be no effort to get a civil rights bill through the first Congress. And it was a great concern as to how King would take this. And we got in the elevator to go up, and it went down instead, and Jacqueline Kennedy got on, in jeans and soot on her face. And I introduced her to Dr. King, and she said, "Oh, Dr. King, I just wish you had been in the basement with me this morning, looking at Andrew Jackson furniture, you would have been thrilled down there." And we got off, and she said, "But you have other things to talk to Jack about, I know." And I thought to myself, she sounded a little wacky, a little bit, charming but wacky. King was completely mellowed by it. He said, "My! Wasn't that something?"
Narrator: The First Lady was so pleased with the results that she agreed to unveil her handiwork to the American people, in an hour-long television special: "A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy."
Charles Collingwood, CBS News (archival): Mrs. Kennedy, I want to thank you for letting us visit your official home. This is obviously the room from which much of your work on it is directed.
Jacqueline Kennedy (archival): Yes, it's attic and cellar all in one.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: She prepared assiduously for the day of shooting. The shooting took seven hours. There were eight cameras. The producer, Perry Wolff, was amused that between takes, she smoked almost nonstop. And he saw that every time she smoked, she took her cigarette and she dumped the ash on the beautiful tapestry bench that she was sitting on. But she performed impeccably.
Charles Collingwood, CBS News (archival): Mrs. Kennedy do you spend a good deal of time in the Lincoln Room?
Jacqueline Kennedy (archival): We did in the beginning. It was where we lived when we first came here, when our rooms at the other end of the hall were being painted. I loved living in this room. It's on the sunny side of the house, and one of Andrew Jackson's magnolia trees is right outside the window.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: That night Perry Wolff stayed around and showed them some of the early rushes. And when the lights came up, Perry Wolff told me that he looked over at Jack and he saw a look of pure adoration and admiration.
Narrator: Wolff would later recall sitting behind the couple in the darkness, watching Jacqueline -- in an unguarded moment -- rest her head on her husband's shoulder as they watched her performance. "There was an exchange of affection," Wolff noted, "that belied many of the stories I had heard."
Robert Dallek, Historian: The fact of the matter is that even though he loves her, it doesn't deter him from having affairs.
Evans Thomas, Writer: John F. Kennedy was for all his many, many qualities was reckless about his womanizing. It was a long list of all different kinds: society matrons, 19-year-olds. I mean, it just went on and on.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: He was abetted by two of his closest aides, Ken O'Donnell and Dave Powers. And also, most of the people who covered the White House in the press were well aware that Kennedy was engaging in private sexual escapades in the White House, in Palm Springs, in Malibu, in New York, and even during one of his summit meetings with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Nassau.
Narrator: Kennedy could be frank and self-aware about his behavior. Once, when a friend asked why he took the risk, he said simply, "I guess it's because I just can't help it."
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: You didn't raise the question of the Kennedy women anywhere around, I mean, although everybody knew what was going on. The press was totally compliant with this and Kennedy felt he could depend upon them all.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: There was a code among the political press not to speak of it, partly because it was mutual assured destruction. Everybody had a secret. It wasn't that everyone had decided that this didn't matter. It was that simply that everybody had dirt on everybody else. And Kennedy was very comfortable in that environment, and that environment had protected him.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Jackie did understand that this was an aspect of him that there was nothing she could do about. And she made her peace with it. It sort of gave her a pass to go out and spend a lot of time in the country. She took off on long, extended vacations. She went to Italy for a long time, and she basically every summer would spend her time in Hyannis, a good distance from the Kennedy compound and enjoy her solitude there.
Narrator: Jack was happy to join his wife, his daughter Caroline, and his son John Jr. in Hyannis Port when he could. But politics kept him on the road much of that summer and into the fall, with midterm elections coming up.
William H. Lawrence, Journalist (archival audio): Mr. Kennedy figures that by the end of this campaign alone, he will have traveled almost as far as all the Presidents in this century combined, in midterm elections.
President Kennedy has deliberately, directly placed his personal prestige squarely on the line. He has taken this dangerous political gamble because the fate of his legislative program for the next two years hangs in the balance.
Robert Dallek, Historian: By the summer of 1962, the Kennedy administration had achieved very little. The four major initiatives, they were blocked by southern conservatives, and so he's not able to get anything significant passed.
Narrator: Midterm elections were always nerve-wracking for a sitting President. And Kennedy had a personal stake in 1962: his 30-year-old brother Ted was running for his old Senate seat in Massachusetts. The Republicans spent that campaign summer taking pages from the old Kennedy playbook, attacking the President for being weak on Communism. Kennedy was trying to project strength.
The President let the press know about the newly operational nuclear-armed missiles in Turkey, which were pointed at the Kremlin. He maintained absolute silence on the historic and crucial back-channel exchange of personal letters he'd opened with Nikita Khrushchev. Only Bobby and a few of his closest aides knew about that. The President had also entrusted his brother with the continuing problem of Fidel Castro and Cuba.
Evan Thomas, Writer: You would think that the Bay of Pigs was purely chastening, that it would cause them to see a yellow light and slow down, but actually Kennedys hit the gas. They go faster. They start Operation Mongoose to try to get rid of Castro. Bobby Kennedy essentially takes over overseeing Covert Operations.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: Bobby was an unremitting enthusiast about covert activities and kept pressing everybody. I think they had weekly meetings. Tuesday, I think, was the chosen day for Mongoose meetings, and there would be representatives from the Pentagon, from the CIA, from the State Department who'd go to these meetings, and they'd all be hectored by Bobby to do more. And he would use his crudest expressions to tell them they weren't doing enough, and they should get on the ball. Bobby would say there is no higher interest in the entire United States government than getting rid of Castro.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Now there were already assassination plots underway that started in the Eisenhower administration, but they pick up a little bit of momentum under Bobby, all sorts of crazy stuff of using organized crime to kill Castro, to cause what the CIA called "boom and bang" on the island of Cuba, to try to disrupt Castro. None of this stuff works. It's a complete failure.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: It was the most disastrous foreign policy combination you could imagine, because it wasn't effective enough to actually overthrow Castro, and it demonstrated to the Russians that they had to do something very dramatic if they were going to save their Cuban ally.
Deputy Director, CIA (archival audio): This is a result of the photography taken Sunday, sir. There's a medium-range ballistic missile launch site and two new military encampments.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): How far advanced is this?
CIA Analyst (archival audio): Sir, we've never seen this kind of installation before.
Narrator: Kennedy had insisted, on the record, that his Administration would never stand for Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. And Khrushchev had privately -- and secretly -- assured Kennedy the Soviets had no such plans. But American reconnaissance flights had returned from Cuban airspace with photographic evidence: the Soviet missiles were already in country, waiting to be mated to nuclear warheads.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile?
CIA Analyst (archival audio): The length, sir.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): The what?
CIA Analyst (archival audio): The length.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: It's very bad. It's bad on several levels. This whole back-channel operation is going to collapse if he can't even believe what the Soviets are telling him on something as important as this. He made it clear to the Soviets that this would not be acceptable. And yet they did it anyway.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: The President is furious. He realizes that he's been lied to by Khrushchev. Kennedy called his closest advisors together and they met in the Cabinet Room of the White House. There two questions: One, were the missiles ready to fire? And the second question was how they were going to react.
General Curtis LeMay (archival audio): I just don't see any other solution except direct military intervention, right now. I think that a blockade and political talk would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals a pretty weak response to this, and I'm sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too.
Evan Thomas, Writer: The initial advice is, "Attack! Bomb! Go in! This is intolerable. We've got to bomb Cuba or invade it." It's very aggressive. And his brother Robert, the Attorney General, wants to stage a provocation. He says, "Let's sink the Maine or something" -- as an excuse to invade.
Narrator: In the first meetings of the President's Executive Committee -- the Ex-Comm -- the analysts all believed the Soviets were still a number of days away from having operable nuclear weapons in Cuba. They couldn't even be certain the warheads were there yet.
Kennedy set the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines to contingency preparation, but he refused to green-light a military strike that first day, and the President let it be known that he wanted this kept quiet. He didn't want the Soviets backed into a corner, or the American people in a panic, while he decided on the next move.
Evan Thomas, Writer: It's hard to realize how frightened they were. They really thought that war was near. Jack stayed cool. He was grim about it, but he was not panicked.
Narrator: Kennedy kept his announced schedule, including a meeting with the Soviet Ambassador, at which he revealed nothing. He went out to dinner. He traveled to Connecticut and Illinois for campaign events.
Five days into the crisis, with more Soviet ships steaming toward Cuba, and the Joint Chiefs pushing the President to begin bombing the island nation, Kennedy was still insisting on restraint. The President settled on an idea Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had suggested in an early meeting; Kennedy instructed the Navy to set up what he called a "quarantine" around Cuba and to turn back all Soviet vessels.
In private letter on October 22nd, 1962, Kennedy told Khrushchev that he would protect the U.S. and its allies by doing "whatever must be done." Later that evening, the President went public, in a nationally televised speech, to alert the country to the danger at hand, and to demand the immediate removal of all Soviet missiles in Cuba.
John F. Kennedy (archival): It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: Part of Kennedy's motivations during the missile crisis was also shoring up his domestic political position, and showing that he could be tough with Khrushchev without plunging the whole world into a nuclear war. That was the fine line that he was trying to tread during the missile crisis.
Man on the street (archival): I'd hate like heck to see us go to war, but if it's necessary to prevent a nuclear war, I think the action has to be taken.
Woman on the street (archival): Well I think it's high time we stopped Russia from having things their own way.
Narrator: President Kennedy was not certain how to proceed. He lacked good low-level aerial photos of the Soviet missile site, so he kept dispatching U-2 reconnaissance planes on dangerous missions within range of anti-aircraft guns in Cuba. And even if the missions were successful, there would still be more questions than answers.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: The CIA told him that there were 8,000 Soviet technicians in Cuba. In fact, there were 43,000 heavily armed Soviet soldiers on Cuba at that point. The Soviets possessed, in addition to these longer-range missiles that could hit the United States, they also possessed shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons that could have been used to wipe out the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo or a U.S. invading force. Kennedy didn't know any of that.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: He gets bad advice from everybody. All of his appointees, his chosen advisors. And they're all over the place, and they change their own views frequently. But in each case, Kennedy was delaying.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: His experience in the military made him even more skeptical and more cautious than he might otherwise have been.
Kennedy's nightmare scenario during the missile crisis was that war would start without either him or Nikita Khrushchev really wanting it. Somebody would make a mistake, and there would be a spiraling chain of events that would quickly get out of control.
Narrator: On October 24, two days after Kennedy's public warning to Khrushchev, new U.S. reconnaissance photographs revealed that work at the missile sites in Cuba was accelerating. Kennedy understood he had to allow the Joint Chiefs to put the military on a hair trigger; the Air Force's Strategic Air Command went on high alert. The President also understood the chance of unintended action sparking a war grew by the hour.
There was no hotline between the White House and the Kremlin, no opportunity for real-time dialogue between himself and Khrushchev. Both men were talking tough, but they were both sending other, less martial signals, hoping those signals would get through the noise.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: Khrushchev ordered, early on, his missile-carrying ships to turn back from Cuba, because he wanted to avoid an immediate confrontation with the President. And at a certain point he decided to offer a tradeoff. He said that, "I'm willing to withdraw my missiles from Cuba if you withdraw your missiles from Turkey." And at one point, all of Kennedy's advisors are against accepting that deal.
The only man in the room who thinks this is a way out of the crisis is the President himself.
Narrator: In the private residence, Jackie Kennedy remembered, "there was no waking or sleeping." And her husband had upped his daily dose of steroids to keep his Addison's under control.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: Everybody went to bed night after night that last week, wondering what was going to happen the next day, and the Joint Chiefs were busy planning to strike the Soviet Union and Cuba, on a moment's notice.
General LeMay, sure enough, was true to form all the way through the Cuban missile crisis. I mean, let's unleash the nuclear weapons that he had his SAC command roaring around, ready to go, any day, any minute.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: Kennedy came under a lot of criticism both from the military and also Congressmen who were briefed on the crisis, who felt that he should be taking tougher action against Khrushchev. And his reaction essentially was: Well, they're not the ones making the decision.
Robert Caro, Writer: What you see in the Cuban missile crisis is Jack Kennedy pulling the nation back from the edge of war. We're talking here about nuclear war.
Narrator: Kennedy made one overriding calculation: that Nikita Khrushchev was as horrified at the prospect of nuclear Armageddon as he was. The President let that calculation -- his alone -- be his guide. And he gambled on it.
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: He gave Khrushchev space. He gave him space when other people were unwilling to give him any space at all.
Narrator: Kennedy had already pulled back the quarantine line to delay confrontation. And on October 25th, against the advice of the ExComm, he instructed the Navy to allow a Soviet oil tanker to breach the quarantine and enter the port in Havana.
But on the 12th day of the crisis, Saturday, October 27th, things started to go awry.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: Black Saturday was probably the day the world came closer than ever before or since to a nuclear war. Many things started happening on Black Saturday, including a U-2 spy plane stumbling over the Soviet Union, which Kennedy reacted to that by saying, "There's always some son-of-a-bitch that doesn't get the word." Both leaders, Khrushchev and Kennedy, were beginning to lose control over their own forces.
Narrator: The Soviets seemed intent on testing the quarantine line that Saturday. A U.S. ship dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine in the Caribbean. And, most harrowing, an American spy plane on a mission over Cuba fell off the radar.
Robert Caro, Writer: You hear the moment on the tape. A messenger comes into the room. You hear Jack Kennedy, for a moment he's flustered.
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense (archival audio): The U-2 was shot down. They fired against our low-altitude surveillance.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): A U-2 was shot down?
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense (archival audio): Wright just said it was shot down.
Robert Caro, Writer: We have said that if Russia shoots down one of our U-2 reconnaissance planes, we will immediately retaliate. We'll immediately bomb that missile site that took out the plane, and then we will prepare for an all-out invasion.
And you hear in the background this chorus of voices: "We said we'll retaliate. We have to do it right now."
Maxwell Taylor, General (archival audio): We should retaliate against the SAM site, and announce that if any other planes are fired on, we will come back and... It looked good then and it still looks good to me.
Robert Caro, Writer: You know what Kennedy says? He says, "Well, let's take a break, gentlemen."
Time and again, when the hawks in that room, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff are insisting on invading, Kennedy pulls them back. He says, "Let's go to dinner now and talk about the Jupiter missiles. Let's talk about a trade."
Narrator: Kennedy could see the chance for a peaceful solution was slipping away, so he chose the person he most trusted, brother Bobby, to take an urgent message to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. He was proposing a way out, which involved the U.S. giving up a set of redundant weapons -- the newly installed Jupiter missiles in Turkey.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: Kennedy repeats his demand for Khrushchev to pull out, says that time is of the essence, if Khrushchev pulls his missiles out of Cuba, the U.S. will over the next few weeks pull its missiles out of Turkey. The President was willing to back down, pull out the American missiles from Turkey, but only if that was kept secret.
Robert Caro, Writer: The Strategic Air Command bombers are circling over the Arctic, waiting for the "go" signals. Other bombers, in the United States, they're being handed their target packets to bomb Russia the next day. In Florida, the Fifth Marine Expeditionary Force is readying for the invasion -- an invasion, war. If Russia's drawn into it -- and it will be, these are Russians on Cuba -- nuclear war.
Radio Moscow (archival audio): This is radio Moscow. Premier Khrushchev just sent a message to President Kennedy today... The Soviet government has ordered the dismantling of weapons in Cuba, as well as their crating and return to the Soviet Union...
Robert Caro, Writer: Khrushchev accepts. And he signs his telegram, "With respect, Khrushchev."
John F. Kennedy (archival): Progress is now being made toward the restoration of peace in the Caribbean. And it is our firm hope and purpose that this progress shall go forward. We will continue to keep the American people informed on this vital matter. Thank you.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: The outcome of the missile crisis was more than dumb luck. I think had somebody else been in the White House at that point as president, the outcome could have been very different. I don't want to praise the President too much. I think he made many blunders, but he managed to get the Soviet missiles removed from Cuba, and he did so without triggering a nuclear war. It was not self-evident that that would happen.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: Did he do a victory dance in public after Khrushchev withdrew the missiles? No. And he was very explicit about why not, and he said it to his team: "Don't embarrass him. Don't humiliate him. We won. It's good enough."
Narrator: Kennedy was not so bashful about using the outcome of the missile crisis to maximum domestic political effect. The President invited a few of his closest reporter friends to the White House for private briefings on the events in Cuba. Then, he demanded a chance to emend and improve their stories about the crisis.
The Administration never did disclose the secret trade-off of U.S. missiles in Turkey. Instead, under the President's direction, they embroidered the already-fanciful tale of the U.S. Navy turning back Soviet ships... what Kennedy's Secretary of State called, the "eyeball-to-eyeball" confrontation between the President and Khrushchev.
Michael Dobbs, Writer: That never happened. Khrushchev had already decided to turn his ships around, and turned them around the previous day. But it helped them build up this myth of the President as the determined leader facing down his opposite number in the Soviet Union. That was politically useful to the Kennedys for some time.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: The Cuban missile crisis establishes Kennedy's credibility at home. He can now talk to the American people in different terms. He's now earned his spurs as a Cold Warrior. He has actually crossed the threshold of credibility on national security affairs. The Cuban missile crisis was a game changer for his presidency.
Narrator: He entered the second half of his term with a new kind of confidence. Kennedy's Democrats had held on to all but four House seats in the midterms and maintained a healthy majority. His youngest brother Teddy had won election to the Senate, where Democrats had gained a few seats.
Three in four Americans approved of the way President Kennedy was handling his job. He was popular enough to bridge the yawning gap between politics and celebrity.
Vaughn Meader, as John F. Kennedy (archival audio): Next, uh, next question. (laughter)
Naomi Brossart, as Jacqueline Kennedy (archival audio): Yes, I should like to ask a question about...
Vaughn Meader, as John F. Kennedy (archival audio): Would you identify yourself, please?(laughter)
Naomi Brossart, as Jacqueline Kennedy (archival audio): I'm your wife.
Narrator: A comedy album by a little-known impersonator named Vaughn Meader was the hit of holiday season 1962.
Naomi Brossart, as Jacqueline Kennedy (archival audio): Yes, I should like to ask the following question ... (speaking French)
Vaughn Meader, as John F. Kennedy (archival audio): No, speak English, Jackie.
Narrator: The First Family sold a record-breaking seven and a half million copies in just six months.
Reporter (archival): Mr. President, it's been a long time since a President and his family have been subject to such a heavy barrage of teasing and fun-poking and satire, and now a smash hit record. Can you tell us whether you read and listen to these things and whether they produce annoyment or enjoyment?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Annoyment. No they produce-- Yes, I have read them and listened to them. Actually I listened to Mr. Meader's record but I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me. (laughter)
Narrator: The President understood political gold dust when he saw it, and Caroline and John were impossible to miss. He occasionally snuck his favorite photographers into the White House for photo ops, when the First Lady wasn't around to run interference.
John F. Kennedy, Jr. (archival audio): Hello!
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): Why do the leaves fall? Why does the snow come on the ground? ... Why are the leaves green?...And why do we go to Cape...?
Narrator: John Kennedy had come to fatherhood relatively late, but he clearly enjoyed the role, as he enjoyed being an uncle, and, with Joe Sr. debilitated, the Kennedy family patriarch.
Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend, Niece: He wanted us to come over to the White House. He was my brother Joe's godfather, and I was always looking at the first edition of books and the scrimshaws and the prints that my brother Joe would get. So, I thought, he was a really, really thoughtful godparent and took it seriously.
Sandy Vanocur, NBC News (archival): Have you found that there's anyway to break through to Mr. Khrushchev, to make him really aware that you are quite sincere and determined about what you say, sir?
John F. Kennedy (archival): Well it is difficult, I think you see the Soviet Union and the United States so far separated in their beliefs, we believing in a world of independent, sovereign, different, diverse nations, they believing in a monolithic Communist world, and you put the nuclear equation into that struggle, that is what makes this, as I said before, such a dangerous time and that we must proceed with firmness and also with the best information we can get and also with care.
Narrator: In the first months of 1963, the President was determined to use his increased standing with the American public to take a chance: to attempt to re-make the frayed relationship with the Soviet Union.
But other events crowded him. Despite rosy reports from his closest advisers, things were not going well in Vietnam. The man whose government Kennedy was backing, Ngo Dinh Diem, had dwindling popular support there. Diem's army in the field appeared incapable of holding off the under-trained and barely-weaponized North Vietnamese Communists, and this despite the fact that Kennedy had quadrupled the number of American troops in Vietnam, in little more than a year, to nearly 12,000. Many of these "advisors" were doing actual fighting and dying, in spite of Kennedy's repeated denials.
The issue of segregation -- in Alabama in particular -- was a loaded powder keg. And the new governor there, George Wallace, was waving a match.
George Wallace, Governor of Alabama (archival): I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the seat of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
Narrator: Wallace had won the governorship by running against what he called "federal intrusion" by the "integratin', scalawaggin', carpet-baggin' liars." Once in office, he kept his white supremacists supporters stirred to a foaming rage. But the integrationists in Alabama were no longer in a mood to back down.
Andrew Young, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: We informed the White House that we would be starting a movement there. And for us the issue was that there had been 60 unsolved bombings that were black people's homes, who were bombed for nothing. Almost any night, somebody might drive through that neighborhood and throw a stick of dynamite on a front porch, or a Molotov cocktail.
Narrator: That April, the movement launched a series of boycotts, sit-ins, and marches protesting segregation and "the blatant misuse of local police power" to support it. "This is," the activists proclaimed, "Birmingham's moment of truth."
The growing protests drew reporters and photographers from around the country. Kennedy would not take a public stand against segregation there, not even when Police Commissioner Bull Connor began filling the city jails with marchers. On May 2nd alone, Connor arrested nearly a thousand children who had joined the protest. The next day, more than 3,000 high school students marched into the streets of downtown Birmingham.
Andrew Young, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: We were in the process of dispersing the crowd, because we did not want any violence. And so my back was turned to Bull Connor and the dogs, because we were trying to get the young people to move out of the park and go back to the church. And then all of a sudden the fire hose start and the dogs come charging.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Jack Kennedy was very conscious of images. When the television cameras and Life magazine arrived down South, that's the moment when the federal government cannot sit back anymore.
Narrator: Kennedy still shied from taking a side. The President deputized a Justice Department official to go to Alabama and help get a deal to end "the spectacle," as he called it. But he refused to push Congress to solve this problem once and for all, by passing federal civil rights legislation that applied everywhere in America. The solution, he insisted, would have to be worked out by Birmingham itself.
The protesters did agree to take a break as negotiations began, but as soon as a tentative deal was reached, the segregationists started a new firebombing campaign. Kennedy sent 3,000 federal troops to the city to keep the peace. He was worried, he said, that "the Negroes will be uncontrollable."
John F. Kennedy (archival): This government will do whatever must be done to preserve order, to protect the lives of its citizens, and to uphold the law of the land.
Narrator: The President was vague on just what that "law" was. He still didn't ask Congress to consider a civil rights bill. Kennedy appeared, like the white moderates Martin Luther King despaired of, "more devoted to 'order' than to justice."
Kennedy was anxious to pivot back to his preferred agenda: the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. On June 10th, 1963, Kennedy stepped to the podium at American University to make what he hoped would be the signature speech of the first term of his presidency.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to keeping peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He calls on the Americans and the Soviets to recognize that they need to think in terms of a new day in this Cold War conflict; that the world is too much hostage to these nuclear weapons; that it is so impermissible to think of having this kind of all-out conflict.
Richard Reeves, Writer: Kennedy gave, certainly intellectually, one of the best speeches ever given by an American president. And that was that maybe we got off on the wrong track. And maybe the Cold War is not necessary. I mean, it raised the most basic questions about why are we doing this.
John F. Kennedy (archival): History teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: This was the first time an American president said the Soviets are like us. It was the first time he asked the American people to think beyond stereotypes and the Cold War, and think about the fact that this was a matter of the future of the human race.
Narrator: The American University speech got big play behind the Iron Curtain the next day, but in the United States, more dramatic events were leading the national newscasts.
George Wallace, Governor of Alabama (archival): As Governor and chief magistrate of Alabama, I deem it to be my solemn obligation and duty to stand before you, representin' the rights and sovereignty of this ...
Narrator: Alabama -- in the person of its "Segregation Forever" Governor -- was back in the news. George Wallace was making a show of blocking black students from attending the state university there.
George Wallace, Governor of Alabama (archival): The illegal and unwarranted actions of the central government on this day, contrary to the laws, customs, and traditions of this state, is calculated to disturb the peace.
Narrator: Kennedy had been ignoring Vice President Johnson's advice to look Southerners "in the eye" and tell them that integration was a "moral" and "Christian" issue.
Watching Wallace's posturing, Kennedy decided, for the first time in his career, to risk his political standing in the South by taking the side of integration.
Richard Reeves, Writer: There was an argument in the White House between Sorensen, Bobby, and the President. And the President said, "I want to go on television tonight, talk about this." They didn't want him to.
Evan Thomas, Writer: President Kennedy decides to go on national television that night, and give a speech calling for a civil rights act to end discrimination in the South.
John F. Kennedy (archival): We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.
Narrator: John F. Kennedy finally called for federal legislation ending segregation.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.
Evan Thomas, Writer: It's done in such a hurry-up fashion that when the TV lights go on and Kennedy begins to read his speech, it's not finished. One of the most important speeches of his presidency, he's winging it for the last third.
John F. Kennedy (archival): We have a right to expect that the Negro community will be responsible, will uphold the law. They have a right to expect the law will be fair, that the Constitution will be colorblind as Justice Harlan said at the turn of the century. This is what we're talking about, and this is a matter which concerns this country and what it stands for, and in meeting it I ask the support of all of our citizens. Thank you very much.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: May and June of 1963 are a pivot in the Kennedy presidency because it's the first moment that he's willing to use the presidency as a bully pulpit to shape public opinion, to lead public opinion. And that's when presidents are at their greatest.
Narrator: The President flew across the Atlantic that summer, with the wind at his back, and the eyes of the world upon him. One of the first stops was the city he'd protected from Soviet domination -- West Berlin.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He goes in June of 1963 on something of a victory lap. It's quite triumphant.
John F. Kennedy (archival): All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner."
Thomas Hughes, Assistant to Robert Kennedy: The Berlin speech and the million Germans that came out to hear him had a profound effect. This was Kennedy the statesman and the politician combined. And he says to Sorensen, "We'll never have a day like this in our whole political lives."
Robert Dallek, Historian: And then of course he goes to Ireland, where he is feted as the prodigal son who has returned home, who comes back to his roots.
John F. Kennedy (archival): George Bernard Shaw, speaking as an Irishman, summed up an approach to life: Other people, he said, "see things and say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were, and I say, 'Why not?'" The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
Jean Kennedy-Smith, Sister: We came home after that, at the Cape, the big house we call it, which is where my parents lived. And we went to the big house for movies on the weekends. So we called Jack out when he came back from Ireland, and we said, "What's the movie for the weekend?" He said, "Well you come over and see, I thought you'd all want to see what my -- the trip to Ireland." So, we all sat and watched his trip to Ireland. It was fantastic. We loved it, we clapped, and everything was wonderful.
And then the next night he said, "I thought maybe you missed a little bit of the trip to Ireland." Then we said, "No, no, that's fine." We went back, saw it again. And the third night, Sunday night, he said, "Just to cover it completely, we just have one more look, my trip to Ireland." I mean, he was so happy.
He loved being President. Yes, he did. He loved being President.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Yesterday a shaft of light cut into the darkness. Negotiations were concluded in Moscow on a treaty to ban all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in our outer space, and under water.
Narrator: Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated an agreement on a nuclear test ban in July of 1963, just six weeks after the American University message. It was a limited agreement, and still had to be ratified by the Senate -- but it was an agreement.
Richard Reeves, Writer: No one ever thought that you could get any kind of treaty involving nuclear missiles. And Kennedy and Khrushchev did it. There's never been a treaty like it before.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: The nuclear test ban proved two things: One, that you could actually have an agreement with the Soviets; and two, that you could convince the Soviets to take a step -- granted, not a huge step -- towards a more peaceful world where there was less danger of nuclear war.
Robert Dallek, Historian: He had used the power of his office to face down the Soviets in the missile crisis. He had stood up to them. He had recouped the setbacks he had suffered over the Bay of Pigs and over the Vienna summit and that he was on his way to a second term, that could lead maybe to some kind of détente with the Soviet Union.
Narrator: His closest friends said Jack Kennedy seemed more settled than they'd seen him in years. Jackie Kennedy would say it was the most time the family ever shared.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Jackie was pregnant with their third child, that they were very excited about. And that summer, up in Hyannis Port, they spent a lot of time together, and their friends commented on how close they seemed.
And then Jackie went into labor prematurely in August, and had Patrick, who was suffering from hyaline membrane disease, which at that point was extremely serious. They took him to Boston and Jack sat there in a chair outside this hyperbaric chamber and waited.
Pierre Salinger, Press Secretary (archival): Patrick Kennedy died at 4:04 a.m. The strain of the baby's attempts to breath, with the problems with his lungs, caused his heart to expire. The President, his brother the Attorney General, and the President's friend Dave Powers, were with the baby when he died.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: They celebrated their 10th anniversary in September and she and wrote to a friend who had introduced them. It was a kind of bittersweet letter, because she said that she felt that Jack could have had a full and vital life without being married to her, but, to her, being married to him and loving him was everything. So it was clear that she was very much in love with him and in many ways they did draw closer together.
Reporter (archival): Mr. President, Dr. Teller, in urging the Senate to reject the nuclear test ban today, said that it weakens American defenses and thus invites attack.
John F. Kennedy (archival): Now, to anyone who works in the laboratories today a 30 megaton weapon is perhaps not as sophisticated as a 60 or 70 or 80 megaton weapon, but it's still many, many, many times, dozens of times stronger, than the weapon that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How many weapons do you need and how many megatons do you need to destroy? I said in my speech what we now have on hand without any further testing will kill 300 million people in one hour, and I suppose they can even improve on that if it's necessary.
Narrator: The President understood he still had plenty of rough water ahead. Ratification of the test ban treaty was not assured. Civil rights legislation was jammed up in committee; a simple vote on the House or Senate floor seemed unlikely. Vietnam was a mess.
Diem's government had squandered what little popular support it had. Its military was still unable to stand up to the Communist-led North Vietnamese. American casualties were on the rise. And American reporters on the ground were starting to tell that story to their readers back home.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: Kennedy's got this problem. He doesn't want the Viet Cong, which are the Communists there, to win. But what do you do if the government you're supporting, and the government whose army you are supplying, is corrupt?
Evan Thomas, Writer: Different parts of Kennedy's own government are telling him different things. Some people are saying we should get rid of Diem, have a coup d'état; other people are saying that's a terrible idea. Kennedy has basically lost control of the Vietnam policy-making part of his government, and he knows it.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): Monday, November 4th, 1963: Over the weekend the coup in Saigon took place, culminated three months of uh conversation about a coup, comma, a conversation which divided the government here and in Saigon...
Narrator: The President had set in motion the overthrow of Diem, without really thinking through the consequences. Three days after the event, in which Diem and his brother were assassinated, Kennedy was still trying to make sense of it.
John F. Kennedy (archival audio): ... I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it. The way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent. The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government.
Narrator: Kennedy was finally beginning to understand how risky was his investment in Southeast Asia. The President's instinct was still to exert control, without calling attention to it. He told his ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, that the U.S. was going to "intensify our efforts" to help the new government there. His military leaders called for more American ground troops, sanctioned to fight against the Communist North. Kennedy wanted to weigh all the options -- from a troop increase to a troop withdrawal.
John Kennedy's prospects for a second term looked good in the fall of 1963, despite the problems in Vietnam. But there was work to be done, particularly in Texas, the state that had been crucial to his victory in 1960. The 1964 election -- his re-election -- was just a year away, and it wasn't going to be easy to campaign openly for civil rights legislation and still win majorities in the South. The state party in Texas was already beginning to fracture, so the President decided to mend some political fences and fundraise with conservative governor John Connally.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: He needs Texas. He's got to win Texas again, and he's got to raise money for the campaign. Jacqueline doesn't really want to go, but he's asked her to come with him.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: Jackie had never accompanied Jack on a domestic trip. This was her first one. They decided to take little three-year-old John with them on the helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base. And he cried when they left, and Kennedy gave him a big hug.
Robert Caro, Writer: As Air Force One is heading toward Dallas, the weather clears. And one of Kennedy's aides, Larry O'Brien, says, "Kennedy weather."
It's a glittering, bright Texas sun. So everything's shining. Everything's gleaming: Air Force One, the great silver plane. The door opens, and it seems like the Kennedys are gleaming.
Newscaster (archival): There's Mrs. Kennedy and the crowd yells, and the President of the United States. And I can see his suntan all the way from here.
Robert Caro, Writer: The plan was for them to get right into the car, but the crowd is so excited along the fence, they're all reaching out to try to touch this beautiful couple. And they walk along -- how could they resist?
They get into the car and the motorcade pulls out for Dallas. The Kennedys are in the first car; in the jump seats are John Connally and Nellie Connally, his wife. Down the sidewalks, from the curb to the buildings, are crammed solid with people. From every window people are reaching out and yelling and screaming. Every time Jackie waves, the crowd presses forward, and every time Jack waves, they press forward, so that the motorcade has to go slower, from 20 miles to 15 miles to 10 miles to five miles.
Nellie Connally turns to the President and says, "Mr. President, you certainly can't say that Dallas doesn't love you." And she says Jack Kennedy looked at her and gave her this big smile.
Edwin Newman, NBC News (archival audio): This is Edwin Newman in the NBC newsroom in New York, this information from Dallas. Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds. This is the latest information we have from Dallas...
Reporter (archival): What is your feeling right now?
Girl on street (archival): I really couldn't say, really. Right now I just don't know what to do.
Reporter (archival): Was there much emotion in the Cathedral?
Priest on street (archival): There was. It really was amazing to see the number of men who came into the cathedral sobbing, almost convulsed with sorrow, anguish.
Man on street (archival): But all we can do now is pray for him and that's about all we can do. An entire loss to the world, it's hardly believable.
Evan Thomas, Writer: Jack Kennedy was the most glamorous, attractive President of the United States we've ever had, and that we'll ever have. That alone holds your fascination. And he had enormous promise. Now, it was unfulfilled. It was not realized. He probably wasn't as great as he appeared to be. But he sure felt that way.
Sally Bedell-Smith, Writer: He is, as is always the case with people who die at a young age, he's fixed in everybody's mind in the way he looked in his "viguh," in his sense of humor, in his informal style.
Timothy Naftali, Historian: Kennedy sets so much in motion in such a short period of time that the outcome of each narrative was unclear.
Harris Wofford, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: We will never know whether he would have been a great president. I'd bet on him, but we didn't have that chance.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it Reagan? Kennedy? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United States through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?