A Candid Moment with America's Most Famous Family
Revisiting the Kennedys' final summer together.
It is a typical snapshot of a family on vacation: father, mother, daughter, son and their dogs on the patio in the August sun. Less typical are their roles: President, First Lady, First Family. The scene’s placidity belies what had already been a tumultuous summer.
The Kennedy administration kicked off the season with its move on June 11 to deputize federal marshals to ensure admission of two Black students to the University of Alabama, against threats by the state's famously segregationist governor to block their attendance. Later that same night, Kennedy took action unprecedented for a sitting president: He gave a nationally televised address urging Congress to enact federal legislation banning segregation. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he asserted. “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. Whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
Two weeks later, on June 26, Kennedy made another memorable speech in Germany. After receiving an ovation lasting several minutes, he addressed an audience of around one million gathered outside West Berlin’s city hall. It was the first time a U.S. president had visited since the city was divided by the Berlin Wall nearly two years earlier. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin,” Kennedy said, “and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner.’” It was a strong expression of solidarity with the citizens of West Berlin, who were surrounded on all sides by Soviet-controlled East German territory.
The President continued on to Ireland. All eight of his great-grandparents had emigrated from that country to Boston, Massachusetts, and he expressed his connection to his ancestors’ place of origin. “This is not the land of my birth,” he told the citizens of Limerick, “but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection.”
Then, only two weeks before this photo was taken, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Ban Test Treaty after more than eight years of negotiations. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, both countries pledged to work towards complete nuclear disarmament.
Throughout that momentous summer, the president and his family retreated to what they called “the big house,” the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts overlooking the Atlantic. It would be their final summer together before Kennedy’s assassination later that year. “We are tied to the ocean,” the President once observed, “and when we go back to the sea, whether to sail or to watch, we are going back to whence we came.”
A new AMERICAN EXPERIENCE collection of images celebrating summer in America throughout the 20th century, from historical firsts like the original drive-in movie theater to iconic events like the 1977 New York City blackout.