Presidency of John F. Kennedy

Kennedy (11 July 1963).

The presidency of John F. Kennedy lasted from January 1961 to November 1963. Kennedy, a member of the Democratic Party and the 35th President of the United States, took office after defeating Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. At age 43, Kennedy became the youngest elected president,[1][lower-alpha 1] the first president born in the 20th century,[2] and the first and (to date) only Roman Catholic president.[3] Kennedy served as president until he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. He was succeeded by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kennedy's time in office was marked by Cold War tensions with Communist states, especially the Soviet Union and Cuba. In Cuba, a failed attempt was made in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. Kennedy's administration subsequently rejected plans by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to orchestrate false-flag attacks on American soil in order to gain public approval for a war against Cuba. In October 1962, it was discovered that Soviet ballistic missiles had been deployed in Cuba; the resulting period of unease, termed the Cuban Missile Crisis, is seen by many historians as the closest the human race has ever come to nuclear war between nuclear-armed belligerents. Kennedy also increased the number of American military advisers in South Vietnam by a factor of 18 over his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower; a further escalation of the American role in the Vietnam War took place after Kennedy's death. Kennedy was unable to pass many aspects of his New Frontier domestic program, but his presidency saw the establishment of the Peace Corps, developments in the Space Race, and the Trade Expansion Act to lower tariffs. Kennedy took steps to support the Civil Rights Movement, and after his death his proposed civil rights bill was passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Administration and Cabinet

Kennedy brought to the White House a contrast in organization compared to the decision-making structure of former-General Eisenhower; and he wasted no time in scrapping Eisenhower's methods.[4] Kennedy preferred the organizational structure of a wheel with all the spokes leading to the president. He was ready and willing to make the increased number of quick decisions required in such an environment. He selected a mixture of experienced and inexperienced people to serve in his cabinet. "We can learn our jobs together", he stated.[5] Kennedy's brother, Robert F. Kennedy, served as Attorney General, and the younger Kennedy was often referred to as the "assistant president" in reference to his wide range of influence.[6] Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was largely sidelined during the administration.[7]

The Kennedy Cabinet
Office Name Term
President John F. Kennedy19611963
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson19611963
Secretary of State Dean Rusk19611963
Secretary of Treasury C. Douglas Dillon19611963
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara19611963
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy19611963
Postmaster General J. Edward Day19611963
John A. Gronouski1963
Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall19611963
Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman19611963
Secretary of Commerce Luther H. Hodges19611963
Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg19611962
W. Willard Wirtz19621963
Secretary of Health,
Education, and Welfare
Abraham A. Ribicoff19611962
Anthony J. Celebrezze19621963

Judicial appointments

Supreme Court

Kennedy appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

Other courts

In addition to his two Supreme Court appointments, Kennedy appointed 21 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 102 judges to the United States district courts. Thurgood Marshall, who Kennedy appointed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, would later be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967.


1960 electoral vote results.
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John F. Kennedy takes the Presidential oath of office administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren on January 20, 1961, at the Capitol.

Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th president at noon on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address he spoke of the need for all Americans to be active citizens, famously saying: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." He asked the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the "common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself."[9]

He added:

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin." In closing, he expanded on his desire for greater internationalism: "Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.[9]

The address reflected Kennedy's confidence that his administration would chart an historically significant course in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. The contrast between this optimistic vision and the pressures of managing daily political realities at home and abroad would be one of the main tensions running through the early years of his administration.[10]

Foreign policy

Vienna Summit

Countries visited by Kennedy during his presidency.

President Kennedy's foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union, manifested by proxy contests in the early stage of the Cold War. In 1961, Kennedy anxiously anticipated a summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He started off on the wrong foot by reacting aggressively to a routine Khrushchev speech on Cold War confrontation in early 1961. The speech was intended for domestic audiences in the Soviet Union, but Kennedy interpreted it as a personal challenge. His mistake helped raise tensions going into the Vienna Summit of June 1961.[11]

Kennedy with Kwame Nkrumah, the first head of an independent Ghana, March 1961.

On the way to the summit, Kennedy stopped in Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle, who advised him to ignore Khrushchev's abrasive style. The French president feared the United States' presumed influence in Europe. Nevertheless, de Gaulle was quite impressed with the young president and his family. Kennedy picked up on this in his speech in Paris, saying that he would be remembered as "the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris."[12]

On June 4, 1961, the president met with Khrushchev in Vienna and left the meetings angry and disappointed that he had allowed the premier to bully him, despite the warnings he had received. Khrushchev, for his part, was impressed with the president's intelligence, but thought him weak. Kennedy did succeed in conveying the bottom line to Khrushchev on the most sensitive issue before them, a proposed treaty between Moscow and East Berlin. He made it clear that any such treaty which interfered with U.S access rights in West Berlin would be regarded as an act of war.[13]

Shortly after the president returned home, the U.S.S.R. announced its intention to sign a treaty with East Berlin, abrogating any third-party occupation rights in either sector of the city. Kennedy, depressed and angry, assumed that his only option was to prepare the country for nuclear war, which he personally thought had a one-in-five chance of occurring.[14]

In the weeks immediately after the Vienna summit, more than 20,000 people fled from East Berlin to the western sector in reaction to statements from the USSR. Kennedy began intensive meetings on the Berlin issue, where Dean Acheson took the lead in recommending a military buildup alongside NATO allies.[15] In a July 1961 speech, Kennedy announced his decision to add $3.25 billion to the defense budget, along with over 200,000 additional troops, stating that an attack on West Berlin would be taken as an attack on the U.S. The speech received an 85% approval rating.[16]

The following month, the Soviet Union and East Berlin began blocking any further passage of East Berliners into West Berlin and erected barbed wire fences across the city, which were quickly upgraded to the Berlin Wall. Kennedy's initial reaction was to ignore this, as long as free access from West to East Berlin continued. This course was altered when it was learned that West Berliners had lost confidence in the defense of their position by the United States. Kennedy sent Vice President Johnson, along with a host of military personnel, in convoy through West Germany, including Soviet-armed checkpoints, to demonstrate the continued commitment of the U.S. to West Berlin.[17]

Bay of Pigs Invasion

Main article: Bay of Pigs Invasion
The President and Vice President take a leisurely stroll on the White House grounds

Fulgencio Batista, a Cuban dictator friendly towards the United States, had been forced out office in 1959 by the Cuban Revolution. Batista's successor, Fidel Castro, affiliated with Communism and the Soviet Union, giving the United States a potential adversary located less than one hundred miles from its shores. The Eisenhower administration had created a plan to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime. The plan, led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with help from the U.S. military, was for an invasion of Cuba by a counter-revolutionary insurgency composed of U.S.-trained, anti-Castro Cuban exiles[18][19] led by CIA paramilitary officers. The intention was to invade Cuba and instigate an uprising among the Cuban people in hopes of removing Castro from power.[20]

Kennedy had campaigned on a hard-line stance against Castro, and when presented with the plan that had been developed under the Eisenhower administration, he agreed to back it despite his reservations about stoking tensions with the Soviet Union.[21] On April 17, 1961, Kennedy ordered what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion: 1,500 U.S.-trained Cubans, called Brigade 2506, landed on the island. No U.S. air support was provided. Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, later stated that they thought the president would authorize any action required for success once the troops were on the ground.[22]

By April 19, 1961, the Cuban government had captured or killed the invading exiles, and Kennedy was forced to negotiate for the release of the 1,189 survivors. After twenty months, Cuba released the captured exiles in exchange for $53 million worth of food and medicine.[23] The incident made Castro wary of the U.S. and led him to believe that another invasion would occur.[24]

According to biographer Richard Reeves, Kennedy focused primarily on the political repercussions of the plan rather than military considerations. When it failed, he was convinced that the plan was a setup to make him look bad.[25] He took responsibility for the failure, saying: "We got a big kick in the leg and we deserved it. But maybe we'll learn something from it."[26]

In late 1961, the White House formed the Special Group (Augmented), headed by Robert Kennedy and including Edward Lansdale, Secretary Robert McNamara, and others. The group's objective—to overthrow Castro via espionage, sabotage, and other covert tactics—was never pursued.[27]

Cuban Missile Crisis

Main article: Cuban Missile Crisis
Meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961

On October 14, 1962, CIA U-2 spy planes took photographs of intermediate-range ballistic missile sites being built in Cuba by the Soviets. The photos were shown to Kennedy on October 16; a consensus was reached that the missiles were offensive in nature and thus posed an immediate nuclear threat.[28]

Kennedy faced a dilemma: if the U.S. attacked the sites, it might lead to nuclear war with the U.S.S.R., but if the U.S. did nothing, it would be faced with the increased threat from close-range nuclear weapons. The U.S. would also appear to the world as less committed to the defense of the hemisphere. On a personal level, Kennedy needed to show resolve in reaction to Khrushchev, especially after the Vienna summit.[29]

Address on the Buildup of Arms in Cuba
Kennedy addressing the nation on October 22, 1962, about the buildup of arms on Cuba

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More than a third of the members of the National Security Council (NSC) favored an unannounced air assault on the missile sites, but for some of them this conjured up an image of "Pearl Harbor in reverse".[30] There was also some reaction from the international community (asked in confidence), that the assault plan was an overreaction in light of the fact that U.S. missiles that had been placed in Turkey by Eisenhower. There could also be no assurance that the assault would be 100% effective.[31] In concurrence with a majority-vote of the NSC, Kennedy decided on a naval quarantine. On October 22 he dispatched a message to Khrushchev and announced the decision on TV.[32]

The U.S. Navy would stop and inspect all Soviet ships arriving off Cuba, beginning October 24. The Organization of American States gave unanimous support to the removal of the missiles. The president exchanged two sets of letters with Khrushchev, to no avail.[33] United Nations (UN) Secretary General U Thant requested that both parties reverse their decisions and enter a cooling-off period. Khrushchev agreed, Kennedy did not.[34]

One Soviet-flagged ship was stopped and boarded. On October 28 Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites, subject to UN inspections.[35] The U.S. publicly promised never to invade Cuba and privately agreed to remove its missiles in Turkey, which were by then obsolete and had been supplanted by submarines equipped with UGM-27 Polaris missiles.[36]

This crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any point before or since. In the end, "the humanity" of the two men prevailed.[37] The crisis improved the image of American willpower and the president's credibility. Kennedy's approval rating increased from 66% to 77% immediately thereafter.[38]

Latin America and communism

President John F. Kennedy with Chilean President Jorge Alessandri, on an official visit in December 1962

Arguing that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable,"[39] Kennedy sought to contain the perceived threat of communism in Latin America by establishing the Alliance for Progress, which sent aid to some countries and sought greater human rights standards in the region.[40] He worked closely with Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Muñoz Marín for the development of the Alliance of Progress, and began working towards the autonomy of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

When the president took office, the Eisenhower administration, through the CIA, had begun formulating plans for the assassination of Castro in Cuba and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Kennedy privately instructed the CIA that any such planning must include plausible deniability by the U.S. His public position was in opposition.[41] In June 1961 the Dominican Republic's leader was assassinated; in the days following the event, Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles led a cautious reaction by the nation. Robert Kennedy, who saw an opportunity for the U.S., called Bowles "a gutless bastard" to his face.[42]

Peace Corps

Physical text copy of the Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps
Executive Order 10924
Establishment of the Peace Corps
John F. Kennedy's announcement of the establishment of the Peace Corps

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As one of his first presidential acts, Kennedy asked Congress to create the Peace Corps. His brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was its first director.[43] Through this program, Americans volunteer to help underdeveloped nations in areas such as education, farming, health care, and construction. The organization grew to 5,000 members by March 1963 and 10,000 the following year.[44] Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries.[45][46]

Southeast Asia

When briefing Kennedy, Eisenhower emphasized that the communist threat in Southeast Asia required priority; Eisenhower considered Laos to be "the cork in the bottle" in regards to the regional threat. In March 1961, Kennedy voiced a change in policy from supporting a "free" Laos to a "neutral" Laos, indicating privately that Vietnam, and not Laos, should be deemed America's tripwire for communism's spread in the area.[47]

In May 1961 he dispatched Lyndon Johnson to meet with South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem. Johnson assured Diem more aid to mold a fighting force that could resist the communists.[48] Kennedy announced a change of policy from support to partnership with Diem to defeat of communism in South Vietnam.[49]

During his administration, Kennedy continued policies that provided political and economic support, and military advice and support, to the South Vietnamese government.[50] Late in 1961, the Viet Cong began assuming a predominant presence, initially seizing the provincial capital of Phuoc Vinh.[51] Kennedy increased the number of military advisors and special forces U.S. Special Forces in the area, from 11,000 in 1962 to 16,000 by late 1963, but he was reluctant to order a full-scale deployment of troops.[52][53] Before his assassination, Kennedy used military advisors and special forces in Vietnam almost exclusively. A year and one-half later, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, committed the first combat troops to Vietnam and greatly escalated U.S. involvement, with forces reaching 184,000 that year and 536,000 in 1968.[54]

In late 1961, President Kennedy sent Roger Hilsman, then director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to assess the situation in Vietnam. There, Hilsman met Sir Robert Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam and the concept of the Strategic Hamlet Program was formed. It was approved by Kennedy and South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. It was implemented in early 1962 and involved some forced relocation, village internment, and segregation of rural South Vietnamese into new communities where the peasantry would be isolated from Communist insurgents. It was hoped that these new communities would provide security for the peasants and strengthen the tie between them and the central government. By November 1963 the program waned and officially ended in 1964.[55]

In early 1962, Kennedy formally authorized escalated involvement when he signed the National Security Action Memorandum – "Subversive Insurgency (War of Liberation)".[56] Secretary of State Dean Rusk voiced strong support for U.S. involvement.[57] "Operation Ranch Hand", a large-scale aerial defoliation effort, began on the roadsides of South Vietnam.[58][lower-alpha 2]

Kennedy with future Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in the Oval Office in 1963.

In April 1963, Kennedy assessed the situation in Vietnam: "We don't have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can't give up that territory to the communists and get the American people to re-elect me."[59] Kennedy faced a crisis in Vietnam by July; despite increased U.S. support, the South Vietnamese military was only marginally effective against pro-communist Viet Cong forces.

On August 21, just as the new U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. arrived, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu ordered South Vietnam forces, funded and trained by the CIA, to quell Buddhist demonstrations. The crackdowns heightened expectations of a coup d'état to remove Diem with (or perhaps by) his brother, Nhu.[60] Lodge was instructed to try to get Diem and Nhu to step down and leave the country. Diem would not listen to Lodge.[61]

Cable 243 (DEPTEL 243), dated August 24, followed, declaring Washington would no longer tolerate Nhu's actions, and Lodge was ordered to pressure Diem to remove Nhu. If Diem refused, the Americans would explore alternative leadership.[62] Lodge stated that the only workable option was to get the South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Diem and Nhu, as originally planned.[63]

At week's end, Kennedy learned from Lodge that the Diem government might, due to France's assistance to Nhu, be dealing secretly with the communists—and might ask the Americans to leave; orders were sent to Saigon and throughout Washington to "destroy all coup cables".[64] At the same time, the first formal anti-Vietnam war sentiment was expressed by U.S. clergy from the Ministers' Vietnam Committee.[65]

A White House meeting in September was indicative of the very different ongoing appraisals; the president was given updated assessments after personal inspections on the ground by the Department of Defense (General Victor Krulak) and the State Department (Joseph Mendenhall). Krulak said that the military fight against the communists was progressing and being won, while Mendenhall stated that the country was civilly being lost to any U.S. influence. Kennedy reacted, saying: "Did you two gentlemen visit the same country?" The president was unaware that the two men were at such odds that they had not spoken to each other on the return flight.[66]

In October 1963, the president appointed Defense Secretary McNamara and General Maxwell D. Taylor to a Vietnam mission in another effort to synchronize the information and formulation of policy. The objective of the McNamara Taylor mission "emphasized the importance of getting to the bottom of the differences in reporting from U.S. representatives in Vietnam."[67] In meetings with McNamara, Taylor, and Lodge, Diem again refused to agree to governing measures insisted upon by the U.S., helping to dispel McNamara's previous optimism about Diem.[68]

(L-R) English: Motorcade for President Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan. In open car (Lincoln-Mercury Continental with bubble top): Secret Service agent William Greer (driving); Military Aide to the President General Chester V. Clifton (front seat, center); Secret Service Agent Gerald "Jerry" Behn (front seat, right; partially hidden); President Mohammad Ayub Khan (standing); President John F. Kennedy (standing). Crowd watching. 14th Street, Washington, D.C.
Ayub Khan (President of Pakistan) with U.S President John F. Kennedy.

Taylor and McNamara were also enlightened by Vietnam's vice president, Nguyen Ngoc Tho (choice of many to succeed Diem should a coup occur), who in detailed terms obliterated Taylor's information that the military was succeeding in the countryside.[69] At Kennedy's insistence, the mission report contained a recommended schedule for troop withdrawals: 1,000 by year's end and complete withdrawal in 1965, something the NSC considered a strategic fantasy.[70] The final report declared that the military was making progress, that the increasingly unpopular Diem-led government was not vulnerable to a coup, and that an assassination of Diem or Nhu was a possibility.[71]

In late October, intelligence wires again reported that a coup against the Diem government was afoot. The source, Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh (also known as "Big Minh"), wanted to know the U.S. position. Kennedy instructed Lodge to offer covert assistance to the coup, excluding assassination, and to ensure deniability by the U.S.[72] Later that month, as the coup became imminent, Kennedy ordered all cables to be routed through him. A policy of "control and cut out" was initiated to insure presidential control of U.S. responses, while cutting him out of the paper trail.[73]

On November 1, 1963, South Vietnamese generals, led by "Big Minh", overthrew the Diem government, arresting and then killing Diem and Nhu. Kennedy was shocked by the deaths. He found out afterwards that Minh had asked the CIA field office to secure safe-passage out of the country for Diem and Nhu, but was told that 24 hours were needed to procure a plane. Minh responded that he could not hold them that long.[74]

News of the coup led to renewed confidence initially—both in America and in South Vietnam—that the war might be won.[75] McGeorge Bundy drafted a National Security Action Memo to present to Kennedy upon his return from Dallas. It reiterated the resolve to fight communism in Vietnam, with increasing military and economic aid and expansion of operations into Laos and Cambodia. Before leaving for Dallas, Kennedy told Michael Forrestal that "after the first of the year ... [he wanted] an in depth study of every possible option, including how to get out of there ... to review this whole thing from the bottom to the top." When asked what he thought the president meant, Forrestal said, "it was devil's advocate stuff."[76]

Historians disagree on whether Vietnam would have escalated had Kennedy survived and been re-elected in 1964.[77] Fueling the debate are statements made by Secretary of Defense McNamara in the film "The Fog of War" that Kennedy was strongly considering pulling out of Vietnam after the 1964 election.[78] The film also contains a tape recording of Lyndon Johnson stating that Kennedy was planning to withdraw, a position that Johnson disagreed with.[79] Kennedy had signed National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11, which ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 military personnel by the end of the year.[80][81] Such an action would have been a policy reversal, but Kennedy was moving in a less hawkish direction since his acclaimed speech about world peace at American University on June 10, 1963.[82]

When Robert Kennedy was asked in 1964 what his brother would have done if the South Vietnamese had been on the brink of defeat, he replied: "We'd face that when we came to it."[83] At the time of Kennedy's death, no final policy decision had been made as to Vietnam.[84] In 2008, Theodore Sorensen wrote: "I would like to believe that Kennedy would have found a way to withdraw all American instructors and advisors [from Vietnam]. But even someone who knew JFK as well as I did can't be certain, because I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do."[85] Sorensen added that, in his opinion, Vietnam "was the only foreign policy problem handed off by JFK to his successor in no better, and possibly worse, shape than it was when he inherited it."[85] U.S. involvement in the region escalated until Lyndon Johnson, his successor, directly deployed regular U.S. military forces for fighting the Vietnam War.[86][87] After Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson passed NSAM 273 on November 26, 1963. It reversed Kennedy's decision to withdraw 1,000 troops, and reaffirmed the policy of assistance to the South Vietnamese.[88][89]

American University speech

Kennedy delivers the commencement speech at American University, June 10, 1963
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World Peace Speech
Speech from American University by John F. Kennedy, June 10, 1963 (duration 26:47)

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On June 10, 1963, Kennedy delivered at the high point of his rhetorical powers[90] the commencement address at American University in Washington, D.C. Also known as "Strategy of Peace", Kennedy not only outlined a plan to curb nuclear arms, but also "laid out a hopeful, yet realistic route for world peace at a time when the U.S. and Soviet Union faced the potential for an escalating nuclear arms race."[91] The President wished:

to discuss a topic on which too often ignorance abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived—yet it is the most important topic on earth: world peace ... I speak of peace because of the new face of an age when a singular nuclear weapon contains ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied forces in the Second World War ... an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and air and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn ... I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men ... world peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance ... our problems are man-made—therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.[92]

The president also made two announcements—that the Soviets had expressed a desire to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty, and that the U.S had postponed planned atmospheric tests.[93]

West Berlin speech

Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner) speech
Ich bin ein Berliner speech from the Rathaus Schöneberg by John F. Kennedy, June 26, 1963 (duration 9:01)

Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner) speech (audio)
Audio-only version (duration 9:22)

Kennedy delivering his speech in West Berlin
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In 1963, Germany was enduring a time of particular vulnerability due to Soviet aggression to the east, and the impending retirement of West German Chancellor Adenauer.[94] At the same time, French President Charles de Gaulle was trying to build a Franco-West German counterweight to the American and Soviet spheres of influence.[95][96][97] To Kennedy's eyes, this Franco-German cooperation seemed directed against NATO's influence in Europe.[98]

On June 26, President Kennedy gave a public speech in West Berlin reiterating the American commitment to Germany and criticizing communism. He was met with an ecstatic response from a massive audience.[99]

Kennedy used the construction of the Berlin Wall as an example of the failures of communism: "Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us." The speech is known for its famous phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a citizen of Berlin"). A million people were on the street for the speech.[99] He remarked to Ted Sorensen afterwards: "We'll never have another day like this one, as long as we live."[100]


In 1960, Kennedy stated: "Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom."[101]

Subsequently, as president, Kennedy initiated the creation of security ties with Israel, and he is credited as the founder of the US-Israeli military alliance (which would be continued under subsequent presidents). Kennedy ended the arms embargo that the Eisenhower and Truman administrations had enforced on Israel. Describing the protection of Israel as a moral and national commitment, he was the first to introduce the concept of a 'special relationship' (as he described it to Golda Meir) between the US and Israel.[102]

Kennedy with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir, December 27, 1962.

Kennedy extended the first informal security guarantees to Israel in 1962 and, beginning in 1963, was the first US president to allow the sale to Israel of advanced US weaponry (the MIM-23 Hawk), as well as to provide diplomatic support for Israeli policies which were opposed by Arab neighbors; such as its water project on the Jordan River.[103]

As result of this newly created security alliance, Kennedy also encountered tensions with the Israeli government over the production of nuclear materials in Dimona which he believed could instigate a nuclear arms-race in the Middle East. After the existence of a nuclear plant was initially denied by the Israeli government, David Ben-Gurion stated in a speech to the Israeli Knesset on December 21, 1960, that the purpose of the nuclear plant at Beersheba was for "research in problems of arid zones and desert flora and fauna."[104] When Ben-Gurion met with Kennedy in New York, he claimed that Dimona was being developed to provide nuclear power for desalinization and other peaceful purposes "for the time being."[104]

When Kennedy wrote that he was skeptical and stated, in a May 1963 letter to Ben-Gurion, that American support to Israel could be in jeopardy if reliable information on the Israeli nuclear program was not forthcoming, Ben-Gurion repeated previous reassurances that Dimona was being developed for peaceful purposes. The Israeli government resisted American pressure to open its nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. In 1962, the US and Israeli governments had agreed to an annual inspection regime. A science attaché at the embassy in Tel Aviv concluded that parts of the Dimona facility had been shut down temporarily to mislead American scientists when they visited.[105]

According to Seymour Hersh, the Israelis set up false control rooms to show the Americans. Israeli lobbyist Abe Feinberg stated: "It was part of my job to tip them off that Kennedy was insisting on [an inspection]."[105] Hersh contends the inspections were conducted in such a way that it "guaranteed that the whole procedure would be little more than a whitewash, as the president and his senior advisors had to understand: the American inspection team would have to schedule its visits well in advance, and with the full acquiescence of Israel."[106] Marc Trachtenberg argued: "Although well aware of what the Israelis were doing, Kennedy chose to take this as satisfactory evidence of Israeli compliance with America's non-proliferation policy."[107] The American who led the inspection team stated that the essential goal of the inspections was to find "ways to not reach the point of taking action against Israel's nuclear weapons program."[108]

Rodger Davies, the director of the State Department's Office of Near Eastern Affairs, concluded in March 1965 that Israel was developing nuclear weapons. He reported that Israel's target date for achieving nuclear capability was 1968–1969.[109] On May 1, 1968, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach told President Johnson that Dimona was producing enough plutonium to produce two bombs a year. The State Department argued that if Israel wanted arms, it should accept international supervision of its nuclear program.[105] Dimona was never placed under IAEA safeguards. Attempts to write Israeli adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) into contracts for the supply of U.S. weapons continued throughout 1968.[110]


Relations between the United States and Iraq became strained following the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy on July 14, 1958, which resulted in the declaration of a republican government led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim.[111] On June 25, 1961, Qasim mobilized troops along the border between Iraq and Kuwait, declaring the latter nation "an indivisible part of Iraq" and causing a short-lived "Kuwait Crisis". The United Kingdom—which had just granted Kuwait independence on June 19, and whose economy was heavily dependent on Kuwaiti oil—responded on July 1 by dispatching 5,000 troops to the country to deter an Iraqi invasion. At the same time, Kennedy dispatched a U.S. Navy task force to Bahrain, and the U.K. (at the urging of the Kennedy administration) brought the dispute to United Nations Security Council, where the proposed resolution was vetoed by the Soviet Union. The situation was resolved in October, when the British troops were withdrawn and replaced by a 4,000-strong Arab League force.[112]

In December 1961, Qasim's government passed Public Law 80, which restricted the British- and American-owned Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC)'s concessionary holding to those areas in which oil was actually being produced, effectively expropriating 99.5% of the IPC concession. U.S. officials were alarmed by the expropriation as well as the recent Soviet veto of an Egyptian-sponsored UN resolution requesting the admittance of Kuwait as UN member state, which they believed to be connected. Senior National Security Council adviser Robert Komer worried that if the IPC ceased production in response, Qasim might "grab Kuwait" (thus achieving a "stranglehold" on Middle Eastern oil production), or "throw himself into Russian arms." Komer also made note of widespread rumors that a nationalist coup against Qasim could be imminent, and had the potential to "get Iraq back on [a] more neutral keel."[113]

In April 1962, the State Department issued new guidelines on Iraq that were intended to increase American influence there. Meanwhile, Kennedy instructed the CIA—under the direction of Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt Jr.—to begin making preparations for a military coup against Qasim.[114]

The anti-imperialist and anti-communist Iraqi Ba'ath Party overthrew and executed Qasim in a violent coup on February 8, 1963. While there have been persistent rumors that the CIA orchestrated the coup, declassified documents and the testimony of former CIA officers indicate that there was no direct American involvement, although the CIA was actively seeking a suitable replacement for Qasim within the Iraqi military and had been informed of an earlier Ba'athist coup plot.[115] The Kennedy administration was pleased with the outcome and ultimately approved a $55 million arms deal for Iraq.[116]


President Kennedy in motorcade in Patrick Street, Cork, in Ireland on June 28, 1963

During his four-day visit to his ancestral home of Ireland in June 1963,[117] Kennedy accepted a grant of armorial bearings from the Chief Herald of Ireland and received honorary degrees from the National University of Ireland and Trinity College, Dublin.[118] He visited the cottage at Dunganstown, near New Ross, County Wexford where his ancestors had lived before emigrating to America.[119]

He also became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament).[120] On December 22, 2006, the Irish Department of Justice released declassified police documents indicating that security was heightened as Kennedy was the subject of three death threats during this visit.[121]

Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Troubled by the long-term dangers of radioactive contamination and nuclear weapons proliferation, Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty, originally conceived in Adlai Stevenson's 1956 presidential campaign.[122] In their Vienna summit meeting in June 1961, Khrushchev and Kennedy reached an informal understanding against nuclear testing, but the Soviet Union began testing nuclear weapons that September. The United States responded by conducting tests five days later.[123] Shortly thereafter, new U.S. satellites began delivering images which made it clear that the Soviets were substantially behind the U.S. in the arms race.[124] Nevertheless, the greater nuclear strength of the U.S. was of little value as long as the U.S.S.R. perceived itself to be at parity.[125]

In July 1963, Kennedy sent W. Averell Harriman to Moscow to negotiate a treaty with the Soviets.[126] The introductory sessions included Khrushchev, who later delegated Soviet representation to Andrei Gromyko. It quickly became clear that a comprehensive test ban would not be implemented, due largely to the reluctance of the Soviets to allow inspections that would verify compliance.[127]

Ultimately, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were the initial signatories to a limited treaty, which prohibited atomic testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, or underwater, but not underground. The U.S. Senate ratified this and Kennedy signed it into law in October 1963. France was quick to declare that it was free to continue developing and testing its nuclear defenses.[128]

List of international trips

Kennedy made eight international trips during his presidency.[129]

Dates Country Locations Details
1 May 16–18, 1961  Canada Ottawa State visit. Met with Governor General Georges Vanier and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Addressed parliament.
2 May 31 – June 3, 1961  France Paris State visit. Addressed North Atlantic Council. Met with President Charles de Gaulle.
June 3–4, 1961  Austria Vienna Met with President Adolf Schärf. held talks with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
June 4–5, 1961  United Kingdom London Private visit. Met with Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
3 December 16–17, 1961  Venezuela Caracas Met with President Rómulo Betancourt.
December 17, 1961  Colombia Bogota Met with President Alberto Lleras Camargo.
4 December 21–22, 1961  Bermuda Hamilton Met with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
5 June 29 – July 1, 1962  Mexico Mexico, D.F. State visit. Met with President Adolfo López Mateos.
6 December 18–21, 1962 The Bahamas The Bahamas Nassau Conferred with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Concluded Nassau Agreement on nuclear defense systems.
7 March 18–20, 1963  Costa Rica San José Attended Conference of Presidents of the Central American Republics.
8 June 23–25, 1963  West Germany Bonn,
Met with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and other officials.
June 26, 1963  West Germany West Berlin Delivered several public addresses.
June 26–29, 1963  Ireland Dublin,
Addressed Irish Parliament. Visited ancestral home.[119]
June 29–30, 1963  United Kingdom Birch Grove Informal visit with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at his home.
July 1–2, 1963  Italy Rome,
Met with President Antonio Segni, Italian and NATO officials.
July 2, 1963   Vatican City Apostolic Palace Audience with the newly elected Pope Paul VI.

Domestic policy

President Kennedy in Fort Worth, Texas on Friday morning, November 22, 1963

Kennedy called his domestic program the "New Frontier". It ambitiously promised federal funding for education, medical care for the elderly, economic aid to rural regions, and government intervention to halt the recession. Kennedy also promised an end to racial discrimination.[130]

Much to the chagrin of his economic advisors who wanted him to reduce taxes, Kennedy quickly agreed to a balanced budget pledge. This was needed in exchange for votes to expand the membership of the House Rules Committee in order to give the Democrats a majority in setting the legislative agenda.[131] Kennedy focused on immediate and specific issues facing the administration, and quickly voiced his impatience with pondering of deeper meanings. Deputy National Security Advisor Walt Whitman Rostow once began a diatribe about the growth of communism, and Kennedy abruptly cut him off, asking, "What do you want me to do about that today?"[132]

Kennedy approved Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's controversial decision to award the contract for the F-111 TFX (Tactical Fighter Experimental) fighter-bomber to General Dynamics (the choice of the civilian Defense department) over Boeing (the choice of the military).[133] At the request of Senator Henry Jackson, Senator John McClellan held 46 days of mostly closed-door hearings before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations investigating the TFX contract from February to November 1963.[134]

In his 1963 State of the Union address, he proposed substantial tax reform, and a reduction in income tax rates from the current range of 20–90% to a range of 14–65%; he proposed a reduction in the corporate tax rates from 52 to 47%. Kennedy added that the top rate should be set at 70% if certain deductions were not eliminated for high income earners.[130] Congress did not act until 1964, after his death, when the top individual rate was lowered to 70%, and the top corporate rate was set at 48% (see Revenue Act of 1964).[135]

To the Economic Club of New York, he spoke in 1963 of "... the paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high and revenues too low; and the soundest way to raise revenue in the long term is to lower rates now."[136] Congress passed few of Kennedy's major programs during his lifetime, but did vote them through in 1964 and 1965 under his successor Johnson.[137]


Kennedy ended a period of tight fiscal policies, loosening monetary policy to keep interest rates down and to encourage growth of the economy.[138] He presided over the first government budget to top the $100 billion mark, in 1962, and his first budget in 1961 led to the country's first non-war, non-recession deficit.[139] The economy, which had been through two recessions in three years, and was in one when Kennedy took office, accelerated notably during his presidency. Despite low inflation and interest rates, GDP had grown by an average of only 2.2% per annum during the Eisenhower presidency (scarcely more than population growth at the time), and had declined by 1% during Eisenhower's last twelve months in office.[140]

The economy turned around and prospered during the Kennedy administration. GDP expanded by an average of 5.5% from early 1961 to late 1963,[140] while inflation remained steady at around 1% and unemployment eased.[141] Industrial production rose by 15% and motor vehicle sales rose by 40%.[142] This rate of growth in GDP and industry continued until around 1969, and has yet to be repeated for such a sustained period of time.[140]

Bobby Kennedy stated: "We're going for broke..... their expense accounts, where they've been and what they've been doing..... the FBI is to interview them all..... we can't lose this."[143]

Robert took the position that the steel executives had illegally colluded to fix prices. The administration's actions influenced U.S. Steel to rescind the price increase.[144] The Wall Street Journal wrote that the administration had acted "by naked power, by threats, by agents of the state security police."[145] Yale law professor Charles Reich opined in The New Republic that the administration had violated civil liberties by calling a grand jury to indict U.S. Steel for collusion so quickly.[145]

A New York Times editorial praised Kennedy's actions and said that the steel industry's price increase "imperils the economic welfare of the country by inviting a tidal wave of inflation."[146] Nevertheless, the administration's Bureau of Budget reported the price increase would have resulted in a net gain for GDP as well as a net budget surplus.[147] The stock market, which had steadily declined since Kennedy's election, dropped 10% shortly after the administration's action on the steel industry.[148]

Federal and military death penalty

As president, Kennedy oversaw the last federal execution prior to Furman v. Georgia, a 1972 case that led to a moratorium on federal executions.[149] Victor Feguer was sentenced to death by a federal court in Iowa and was executed on March 15, 1963.[150] Kennedy commuted a death sentence imposed by a military court on seaman Jimmie Henderson on February 12, 1962, changing the penalty to life in prison.[151]

On March 22, 1962, Kennedy signed into law HR5143 (PL87-423), abolishing the mandatory death penalty for first degree murder in the District of Columbia, the only remaining jurisdiction in the United States with such a penalty.[152] The death penalty has not been applied in the District of Columbia since 1957, and has now been abolished.[153]

Civil rights

Kennedy in May 1961 appointed Thurgood Marshall to the federal bench

The turbulent end of state-sanctioned racial discrimination was one of the most pressing domestic issues of the 1960s. Jim Crow segregation was the established law in the Deep South.[154] The Supreme Court of the United States had ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Many schools, especially in southern states, did not obey the Supreme Court's decision. The Court also prohibited segregation at other public facilities (such as buses, restaurants, theaters, courtrooms, bathrooms, and beaches) but it continued nonetheless.[155]

Kennedy verbally supported racial integration and civil rights; during the 1960 campaign he telephoned Coretta Scott King, wife of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been jailed while trying to integrate a department store lunch counter. Robert Kennedy called Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver and obtained King's release from prison, which drew additional black support to his brother's candidacy.[155] Upon taking office in 1961, Kennedy postponed promised civil rights legislation he made while campaigning in 1960, recognizing that conservative Southern Democrats controlled congressional legislation.[156] Historian Carl M. Brauer concluded that passing any civil rights legislation in 1961 would have been futile.[156] During his first year in office Kennedy appointed many blacks to office including his May appointment of civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall to the federal bench. [157]

In his first State of the Union Address in January 1961, President Kennedy said: "The denial of constitutional rights to some of our fellow Americans on account of race at the ballot box and elsewhere disturbs the national conscience, and subjects us to the charge of world opinion that our democracy is not equal to the high promise of our heritage."[158] Kennedy believed the grassroots movement for civil rights would anger many Southern whites and make it more difficult to pass civil rights laws in Congress, including anti-poverty legislation, and he distanced himself from it.[159]

Kennedy was concerned with other issues early in his presidency, such as the Cold War, Bay of Pigs fiasco and the situation in Southeast Asia. As articulated by brother Robert, the administration's early priority was to "keep the president out of this civil rights mess." Civil rights movement participants, mainly those on the front line in the South, viewed Kennedy as lukewarm, [157] especially concerning the Freedom Riders, who organized an integrated public transportation effort in the south, and who were repeatedly met with white mob violence, including by law enforcement officers, both federal and state. Kennedy assigned federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders rather than using federal troops or uncooperative FBI agents.[157] Robert Kennedy, speaking for the president, urged the Freedom Riders to "get off the buses and leave the matter to peaceful settlement in the courts."[160] Kennedy feared sending federal troops would stir up "hated memories of Reconstrucion" after the Civil War among conservative Southern whites.[157]

On March 6, 1961, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925 which required government contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."[161] It established the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Displeased with Kennedy's pace addressing the issue of segregation, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his associates produced a document in 1962 calling on the president to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln and use an Executive Order to deliver a blow for Civil Rights as a kind of Second Emancipation Proclamation - Kennedy did not execute the order.[162]

In September 1962, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi but was prevented from entering. Attorney General Robert Kennedy responded by sending 400 federal marshals, while President Kennedy reluctantly sent 3,000 troops after the situation on campus turned violent.[163] The Ole Miss riot of 1962 left two dead and dozens injured, but Meredith did finally enroll in his first class. Kennedy regretted not sending in troops earlier and he began to doubt whether the "evils of Reconstruction" of the 1860s and 1870s he had been taught or believed in were true.[157] The instigating subculture at the Old Miss riot, and at many other racially ignited events, was the Ku Klux Klan.[164] On November 20, 1962, Kennedy signed Executive Order 11063, prohibiting racial discrimination in federally supported housing or "related facilities".[165]

In early 1963, Kennedy related to Martin Luther King, Jr., his thoughts on the prospects for civil rights legislation: "If we get into a long fight over this in Congress, it will bottleneck everything else, and we will still get no bill."[166] Civil rights clashes were on the rise that year.[167] Brother Robert and Ted Sorenson pressed Kennedy to take more initiative on the legislative front.[168]

President Kennedy's Civil Rights Address, June 11, 1963

On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy intervened when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama to stop two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from attending. Wallace moved aside only after being confronted by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the Alabama National Guard, which had just been federalized by order of the president. That evening Kennedy gave his famous civil rights address on national television and radio, launching his initiative for civil rights legislation—to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities, and greater protection of voting rights.[169][170]

His proposals became part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The day ended with the murder of a NAACP leader, Medgar Evers, in front of his home in Mississippi.[171] As the president had predicted, the day after his TV speech, and in reaction to it, House Majority leader Carl Albert called to advise him that his two-year signature effort in Congress to combat poverty in Appalachia (Area Redevelopment Administration) had been defeated, primarily by the votes of Southern Democrats and Republicans.[172]

Earlier, Kennedy had signed the executive order creating the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women on December 14, 1961.[173] Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led the commission. The Commission statistics revealed that women were also experiencing discrimination; its final report, documenting legal and cultural barriers, was issued in October 1963.[174] Further, on June 10, 1963, Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a federal law amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on sex.[175]

Kennedy meets with leaders of the March on Washington in the Oval Office, August 28, 1963

Over a hundred thousand, predominantly African Americans, gathered in Washington for the civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Kennedy feared the March would have a negative effect on the prospects for the civil rights bills in Congress, and declined an invitation to speak. He turned over some of the details of the government's involvement to the Dept. of Justice, which channelled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the six sponsors of the March, including the N.A.A.C.P. and Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).[176]

To ensure a peaceful demonstration, the organizers and the president personally edited speeches which were inflammatory and agreed the March would be held on a Wednesday and would be over at 4:00 pm. Thousands of troops were placed on standby. Kennedy watched King's speech on TV and was very impressed. The March was considered a "triumph of managed protest", and not one arrest relating to the demonstration occurred. Afterwards, the March leaders accepted an invitation to the White House to meet with Kennedy and photos were taken. Kennedy felt that the March was a victory for him as well and bolstered the chances for his civil rights bill.[176]

Nevertheless, the struggle was far from over. Three weeks later, a bomb exploded on Sunday, September 15 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham; by the end of the day, four African American children had died in the explosion, and two other children shot to death in the aftermath.[177] Due to this resurgent violence, the civil rights legislation underwent some drastic amendments that critically endangered any prospects for passage of the bill, to the outrage of the president. Kennedy called the congressional leaders to the White House and by the following day the original bill, without the additions, had enough votes to get it out of the House committee.[178] Gaining Republican support, Senator Everett Dirksen promised the legislation would be brought to a vote preventing a Senate filibuster.[179] The legislation was enacted by Kennedy's successor President Lyndon B. Johnson, prompted by Kennedy's memory, after his assassination in November, enforcing voting rights, public accommodations, employment, education, and the administration of justice.[179]

Civil liberties

In 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who hated civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and viewed him as an upstart troublemaker,[180] presented the Kennedy Administration with allegations that some of King's close confidants and advisers were communists. Concerned that the allegations would derail the Administration's civil rights initiatives if made public, Robert Kennedy and the president both warned King to discontinue the suspect associations. After the associations continued, Robert Kennedy issued a written directive authorizing the FBI to wiretap King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King's civil rights organization in October 1963.[181]

Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King's phones "on a trial basis, for a month or so",[182] Hoover extended the clearance so his men were "unshackled" to look for evidence in any areas of King's life they deemed worthy.[183] The wiretapping continued through June 1966 and was revealed in 1968.[184]


John F. Kennedy initially proposed an overhaul of American immigration policy that was later to become the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by his brother Senator Edward Kennedy. It dramatically shifted the source of immigration from Northern and Western European countries towards immigration from Latin America and Asia. The policy change also shifted the emphasis in the selection of immigrants in favor of family reunification.[185] Kennedy wanted to dismantle the selection of immigrants based on country of origin and saw this as an extension of his civil rights policies.[186]

Native American relations

Construction of the Kinzua Dam flooded 10,000 acres (4,047 ha) of Seneca nation land that they had occupied under the Treaty of 1794, and forced 600 Seneca to relocate to Salamanca, New York. Kennedy was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to intervene and to halt the project, but he declined, citing a critical need for flood control. He expressed concern about the plight of the Seneca, and directed government agencies to assist in obtaining more land, damages, and assistance to help mitigate their displacement.[187][188]

Space policy

The Apollo program was conceived early in 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, as a follow-up to Project Mercury, to be used as a shuttle to an Earth-orbital space station, flights around the Moon, or landing on it. While NASA went ahead with planning for Apollo, funding for the program was far from certain, given Eisenhower's ambivalent attitude to manned spaceflight.[189] As senator, Kennedy had been opposed to the space program and wanted to terminate it.[190]

In constructing his Presidential administration, Kennedy elected to retain Eisenhower's last science advisor Jerome Wiesner as head of the President's Science Advisory Committee. Wiesner was strongly opposed to manned space exploration,[191] having issued a report highly critical of Project Mercury.[192][193] Kennedy was turned down by seventeen candidates for NASA administrator before the post was accepted by James E. Webb, an experienced Washington insider who served President Harry S. Truman as budget director and undersecretary of state. Webb proved to be adept at obtaining the support of Congress, the President, and the American people.[194] Kennedy also persuaded Congress to amend the National Aeronautics and Space Act to allow him to delegate his chairmanship of the National Aeronautics and Space Council to the Vice President, [194][195] both because of the knowledge of the space program Johnson gained in the Senate working for the creation of NASA, and to help keep the politically savvy Johnson occupied.[194]

In Kennedy's January 1961 State of the Union address, he had suggested international cooperation in space. Khrushchev declined, as the Soviets did not wish to reveal the status of their rocketry and space capabilities.[196] Early in his presidency, Kennedy was poised to dismantle the manned space program, but postponed any decision out of deference to Johnson, who had been a strong supporter of the space program in the Senate.[190] Kennedy's advisors speculated that a Moon flight would be prohibitively expensive,[197] and he was considering plans to dismantle the Apollo program due to its cost.[198]

Kennedy proposing a program to land men on the Moon to Congress in May 1961. Johnson and Sam Rayburn are seated behind him

However, this quickly changed on April 12, 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union.[199] Kennedy now became eager for the U.S. to take the lead in the Space Race, for reasons of strategy and prestige. On April 20, he sent a memo to Johnson, asking him to look into the status of America's space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up.[200][201] After consulting with Wernher von Braun, Johnson responded approximately one week later, concluding that "we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership."[202][203] His memo concluded that a manned Moon landing was far enough in the future that it was likely the United States would achieve it first.[202] Kennedy's advisor Ted Sorensen advised him to support the Moon landing, and on May 25, Kennedy announced the goal in a speech titled "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs":

... 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.[204] Full text 
Kennedy speaks at Rice University, September 12, 1962 (duration 17:47)

After Congress authorized the funding, Webb began reorganizing NASA, increasing its staffing level, and building two new centers: a Launch Operations Center for the large Moon rocket northwest of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and a Manned Spacecraft Center on land donated through Rice University in Houston, Texas. Kennedy took the latter occasion as an opportunity to deliver another speech at Rice to promote the space effort on September 12, 1962, in which he said:

No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.[205] Full text 

On November 21, 1962, in a cabinet meeting with NASA administrator Webb and other officials, Kennedy explained that the Moon shot was important for reasons of international prestige, and that the expense was justified.[206] Johnson assured him that lessons learned from the space program had military value as well. Costs for the Apollo program were expected to reach $40 billion.[207]

In a September 1963 speech before the United Nations, Kennedy urged cooperation between the Soviets and Americans in space, specifically recommending that Apollo be switched to "a joint expedition to the Moon".[208] Khrushchev again declined, and the Soviets did not commit to a manned Moon mission until 1964.[209] On July 20, 1969, almost six years after Kennedy's death, Apollo 11 landed the first manned spacecraft on the Moon.


The Kennedys and the Connallys in the presidential limousine moments before the assassination in Dallas.

President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, at 12:30 pm Central Standard Time on Friday November 22, 1963, while on a political trip to Texas to smooth over frictions in the Democratic Party between liberals Ralph Yarborough and Don Yarborough (no relation) and conservative John Connally.[210] Traveling in a presidential motorcade through downtown Dallas, he was shot once in the back, the bullet exiting via his throat,[211] and once in the head.[211]

Kennedy was taken to Parkland Hospital for emergency medical treatment, but pronounced dead at 1:00 pm. Only 46, President Kennedy died younger than any other U.S. president to date. Lee Harvey Oswald, an order filler at the Texas School Book Depository from which the shots were suspected to have been fired, was arrested for the murder of police officer J. D. Tippit, and was charged subsequently with Kennedy's assassination. He denied shooting anyone, claiming he was a patsy,[212][213] and was killed by Jack Ruby on November 24, before he could be prosecuted. Ruby was arrested and convicted for the murder of Oswald. Ruby successfully appealed his conviction and death sentence but became ill and died of cancer on January 3, 1967, while the date for his new trial was being set.

President Johnson created the Warren Commission—chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren—to investigate the assassination, which concluded that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy, and that Oswald was not part of any conspiracy.[214] The results of this investigation are disputed by many.[215] The assassination proved to be an important moment in U.S. history because of its impact on the nation, and the ensuing political repercussions. A 2004 Fox News poll found that 66% of Americans thought there had been a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, while 74% thought that there had been a cover-up.[216] A Gallup Poll in mid-November 2013, showed 61% believed in a conspiracy, and only 30% thought that Oswald did it alone.[217] In 1979, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that it believed "that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee was unable to identify the other gunmen or the extent of the conspiracy."[218] In 2002, historian Carl M. Brauer concluded that the public's "fascination with the assassination may indicate a psychological denial of Kennedy's death, a mass undo it."[214]

The assassination had an effect on many people, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Many vividly remember where they were when first learning of the news that Kennedy was assassinated, as with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, before it and the September 11 attacks after it. UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson said of the assassination: "all of us..... will bear the grief of his death until the day of ours." Many people have also spoken of the shocking news, compounded by the pall of uncertainty about the identity of the assassin(s), the possible instigators, and the causes of the killing, as an end to innocence, and in retrospect it has been coalesced with other changes of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, especially the Vietnam War.


Historians and political scientists tend to rank Kennedy as an above-average president. Kennedy receives plaudits for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as he avoided nuclear war and set the stage for less tense relations with the Soviet Union, while also keeping nuclear weapons out of Cuba.[219][220] Kennedy remains a powerful and popular symbol, and, in Gallup polls, consistently wins higher approval ratings than any other post-World War II president.[220] The term "Camelot" is often used to describe Kennedy's presidency, reflecting the powerful nostalgia that many feel for his presidency.[220] Many of Kennedy's proposals were passed after his death, during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, and Kennedy's death gave his proposals a powerful moral component.[219] Kennedy also had an impact on presidential campaigns, as his use of television provided a campaign model that spoke to voters directly and weakened the power of party organizations in the presidential primary system.[221] Robert Kennedy would seek the presidency in 1968 before he was also assassinated, while another brother, Ted Kennedy, sought the presidency in 1980.[222]

See also


  1. Theodore Roosevelt was nine months younger when he first assumed the presidency on September 14, 1901, but he was not elected to the office until 1904, when he was 46. Jewell 2005, p. 207.
  2. Two hundred thousand gallons of defoliant were shipped, in violation of the Geneva Accords. By the end of 1962, American military personnel had increased from 2,600 to 11,500; 109 men were killed compared to 14 the previous year. During 1962, Viet Cong troops increased from 15,000 to 24,000. Depending on which assessment Kennedy accepted (Department of Defense or State) there had been zero or modest progress in countering the increase in communist aggression in return for an expanded U.S. involvement. Reeves 1993, p. 283.


  1. Dallek 2003, p. 109.
  2. Carroll, Wallace (January 21, 1961). "A Time of Change Facing Kennedy; Themes of Inaugural Note Future of Nation Under Challenge of New Era". The New York Times. p. 9.
  3. "FAQ". The Pulitzer Prizes. Columbia University. Archived from the original on 1 August 2016. Retrieved February 23, 2012.
  4. Reeves 1993, p. 22.
  5. Reeves 1993, pp. 23, 25.
  6. "Bobby Kennedy: Is He the 'Assistant President'?". US News and World Report. 19 February 1962. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  7. Oshinksy, David (26 October 1997). "Fear and Loathing in the White House". New York Times. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  8. Savage, David (20 March 1993). "Supreme Court's Byron White Will Step Down After 31 Years : Law: Departure would allow first high court appointee by a Democratic President in quarter of a century. Retirement could mark the start of a gradual shift toward the left.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  9. 1 2 Kennedy, John F. (January 20, 1961). "Inaugural Address". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Archived from the original on January 11, 2012. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
  10. Kempe 2011, p. 52.
  11. Kempe 2011, pp. 76–78.
  12. Reeves 1993, p. 145.
  13. Reeves 1993, pp. 161–171.
  14. Reeves 1993, p. 175.
  15. Reeves 1993, p. 185.
  16. Reeves 1993, p. 201.
  17. Reeves 1993, p. 213.
  18. Schlesinger 2002, pp. 233, 238.
  19. Gleijeses (1995), pp. 9–19
  20. Reeves 1993, pp. 69–73.
  21. "50 Years Later: Learning From The Bay Of Pigs". NPR. 17 April 2011. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  22. Reeves 1993, pp. 71, 673.
  23. Schlesinger 2002, pp. 268–294, 838–839.
  24. Jean Edward Smith, "Bay of Pigs: The Unanswered Questions", The Nation, April 13, 1964.
  25. Reeves 1993, pp. 95–97.
  26. Schlesinger 2002, pp. 290, 295.
  27. Reeves 1993, p. 264.
  28. Reeves 1993, p. 345.
  29. Reeves 1993, p. 245.
  30. Reeves 1993, p. 387.
  31. Reeves 1993, p. 388.
  32. Reeves 1993, p. 389.
  33. Reeves 1993, p. 390.
  34. Reeves 1993, p. 403.
  35. Reeves 1993, p. 426.
  36. Kenney 2000, pp. 184–186.
  37. Kenney 2000, p. 189.
  38. Reeves 1993, p. 425.
  39. JFK's "Address on the First Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress", White House reception for diplomatic cors of the Latin American republics, March 13, 1962. Public Papers of the Presidents – John F. Kennedy (1962), p. 223.
  40. Schlesinger 2002, pp. 788, 789.
  41. Reeves 1993, pp. 140–142.
  42. Reeves 1993, p. 152.
  43. Dallek 2003, pp. 338–339.
  44. Schlesinger 2002, pp. 606–607.
  45. Meisler, Stanley (2011). When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0807050491.
  46. "Peace Corps, Fast Facts". Archived from the original on 2 August 2016. Retrieved 2 August 2016.
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  48. Karnow 1991, pp. 230, 268.
  49. Reeves 1993, p. 119.
  50. Dunnigan & Nofi 1999, p. 257.
  51. Reeves 1993, p. 240.
  52. Reeves 1993, p. 242.
  53. "Brief Overview of Vietnam War". Swarthmore College Peace Collection. Archived from the original on 3 August 2016. Retrieved 2 August 2016.
  54. "Vietnam War Allied Troop Levels 1960-73". The American War Library. Archived from the original on 2 August 2016. Retrieved 2 August 2016.
  55. Tucker 2011, p. 1070.
  56. Reeves 1993, p. 281.
  57. McNamara 2000, p. 143.
  58. Reeves 1993, p. 259.
  59. Reeves 1993, p. 484.
  60. Reeves 1993, p. 558.
  61. Reeves 1993, p. 559.
  62. Reeves 1993, pp. 562–563.
  63. Reeves 1993, p. 573.
  64. Reeves 1993, p. 577.
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U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
Kennedy Presidency
Succeeded by
L. B. Johnson
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