“We will need in the Sixties a president who is willing and able to summon his national constituency to its finest hour — to alert the people to our dangers and our opportunities — to demand of them the sacrifices that will be necessary.” — John F. Kennedy, 1960
Life of Pain
John F. Kennedy, known as Jack, lived his life in pain. He had chronic back problems that were exacerbated by his physical competitiveness, and Addison’s disease, a hormonal disorder that causes fatigue and compromises the immune system. He was given last rites, the Catholic blessing before death, three times before he reached the age of forty: in 1947 after he returned, gravely ill, from England; in 1951 while running a high fever in Japan; and following back surgery in 1954. According to historian Robert Dallek, if the public had known about Kennedy’s ill health, he probably never would have been elected president.
School and Navy
Like his father and brother before him, Jack went to Harvard where he befriended many peers and professors. His undergraduate thesis on Great Britain’s lack of preparedness for the Nazi advance was published as Why England Slept (1940). Upon graduating, Jack joined the Navy, and was sent to the Naval Intelligence division in Washington. After agitating for a more active role, Kennedy was assigned command of a patrol boat in the Pacific, PT-109.
While on duty near the Solomon Islands in August 1943, PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, killing two crewmen. Kennedy helped a badly burned sailor reach a floating piece of wreckage and then managed to get his surviving crew to an island fifty miles behind enemy lines. Their rescue, a week later, was thanks to a message inscribed in a coconut. Jack received commendations for his bravery. Meanwhile, half a world away, his older brother Joe Jr. who had been serving as a naval pilot, died in an aerial explosion over the English Channel.
Joe Jr. had been expected to fulfill their father’s ambition of becoming the first Irish Catholic president; after his death, the father drafted Jack for that role. “'Wanted’ isn’t the right word. He demanded it,” the president later recalled.
In 1946, Jack ran for the open House seat vacated by James Michael Curley in an overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts district. Kennedy did not operate within the Democratic machine, however. He had enough political connections through his two grandfathers, plus funding from his father and a virtual army of friends from the Navy and college, as well as siblings to help campaign. He served in the House for three terms and then won a Senate race in 1952.
As a young senator, Jack courted and married Jacqueline Bouvier, a journalist twelve years his junior. Though Jackie was charming and beautiful, being married did not dissuade Jack from his constant philandering. Historians have suggested his lust was driven either from a desire to defy the near-debilitating pain he was in, or as an inheritance from his equally promiscuous father. His love affairs before and after marriage included liaisons with a suspected Nazi spy, a mobster’s girlfriend, a nineteen-year-old intern and Marilyn Monroe. Although many journalists were aware of Kennedy’s peccadilloes, they did not publicize them, either because they felt the topic was taboo or because they had been charmed by Kennedy and wanted to protect him.
In 1956, Senator Kennedy offered himself, against his father’s advice, as a possible vice presidential candidate for the Democratic ticket. Although the convention delegates chose Estes Kefauver as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate, the young politician had reached a national platform. That same year, Kennedy published Profiles in Courage, a book relating incidents in which U. S. Senators made decisions based on their consciences, often against the will of their constituents. Though some charged Kennedy had not written it himself, the book won a Pulitzer Prize for biography the following year, further distinguishing Kennedy among his peers.
Elected to the White House
Kennedy’s humor, charm and youth — and his father’s money and contacts — were great assets in the presidential campaign of 1960 against Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy expertly presented his platform and himself using a new medium, television, and calling for an expansion of American democratic benefits at home and abroad. Jack’s younger brother Robert ran the campaign and was the last one awake when the election results came in. Kennedy had won by a narrow margin.
Foreign Policy Challenges
Thrown into the midst of the Cold War, Kennedy’s White House was quickly besieged by foreign crises. An invasion of Cuba by American-backed Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs failed to overthrow Fidel Castro. American military advisers were sent to Vietnam. A massive airlift supplied West Berlin after the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall. The most harrowing crisis came in October 1962 when American pilots found evidence of ballistic missiles in Cuba capable of delivering nuclear warheads to North American targets. The resolution of the crisis involved public diplomacy at the United Nations, a presidential speech to the nation, private meetings between Robert Kennedy and the Soviet ambassador, and President Kennedy’s resistance to his military advisors. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had a direct telephone line to the Kremlin installed in the White House to improve communication between the superpowers. He also signed the first nuclear weapons treaty.
Among the domestic policies Kennedy instituted were the establishment of the Peace Corps, the Apollo space mission to the moon, and the introduction of civil rights legislation. The president’s work in office was cut short by an assassination that became an indelible, tragic turning point in the lives of millions of Americans, many of whom can still recall exactly where they were when they heard the news. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. He was survived by his wife, daughter and son.