John F. Kennedy:  Profile of an American President
Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources


John F. Kennedy, coming from an affluent Irish Catholic family, burst onto the political scene in the1950's and immediately captured the publicís imagination with his friendly personality, witty sense of humor, and suave good looks. Leading the nation into the 1960's, he set the goals for the nation high (even vowing to have a man on the moon by the end of the decade) in hopes of maintaining the post-war period of good times that American society experienced in the 50's.He also did everything within his capabilities to keep the United States safe from a nuclear war with Russia, which, as was proven by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, was not always an easy task. His untimely death at the hands of gunman Lee Harvey Oswald left the nation in a state of confusion, from which it was not to recover until well after the turbulent and rebellious 1960's had passed.

Historical Background

The conclusion of World War II saw the threat of Nazism effectively quelled, but in the years that would follow, the United States and the rest of the world battled the spread of communism; while all the while the threat of a great nuclear war between the United States and Russia loomed ominously overhead. While the 1950's were a time of great economic prosperity for this nation, it was at the cost of a war with North Korea. Though the US was able to halt the North Korean invasion of South Korea, it was obvious to all that tensions were mounting between the democratic west and communist Russia. Thus was the political picture as the 1960's approached, placing even more importance on the 1960 presidential election. When the nation spoke, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected to guide the country into what was to go down in history as one of the most turbulent decades ever.

Research Report

Early Life

Born in Brookline, MA on May 29, 1917, the second oldest son of controversial wealthy Irish Catholic businessman, Joseph Kennedy and wife Rose Kennedy, Jack (as friends knew him) grew up with all of the advantages that money could buy. From an early age, John and his older brother Joe were groomed for a life in politics. His father held the position of head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and later, under FDR, he was appointed ambassador to England, so it was not surprising that he expected nothing less than a career in politics for his sons. When Joe Jr. was killed during a bombing mission in World War II, his fatherís hopes fell solely on the shoulders of Jack to make his dream a reality, and, of course, his fatherís connections greatly aided this quest.

After graduating from the Choate boarding school in Connecticut with rather mediocre grades in 1934, John decided to attend the London School of Economics, but after falling ill shortly after arriving there, he was forced to return to the US and enroll at Princeton in 1935. Despite less than spectacular grades while there, with the help of his fatherís connections, Jack was accepted into Harvard in the fall of 1936. After graduating in 1940, he entered into the navy where he bravely served in the South Pacific aboard PT-109. In August of 1943 his boat was literally sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer, killing two of his crew, but, in a tremendous act of heroism, Kennedy was able to drag one of his unconscious crew mates on his back as he swam a distance of several miles to a nearby island where him and the rest of his crew waited for 3 days before rescue teams were able to bring them to safety.

A Burgeoning Political Career

After the war, Jack focused his attention on politics, gaining his first entrance into the political world after winning the House of Representativeís seat for the area of greater Boston in 1946. After serving three terms in the House, he made the move into the Senate in 1952 by defeating Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge. Though relatively ineffective as a senator due to constant back problems that caused him to be frequently hospitalized, he was able to establish himself as a major popular force within the Democratic party. Despite an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency in 1956, it was obvious to all that Jack was a serious player who, because of his tremendous popular appeal with the masses, could one day capture his partyís presidential bid. Thus, after his re-election to the Senate in 1958, he thrust all of his efforts into winning the bid for the 1960 election, which he narrowly did.

Not only was his time as a senator a time of great political advancement, but Jack also achieved great personal happiness and success in the field that had always been his true love; writing. On September 12, 1953, Jack, then 36, was married to the much younger (24 year old) Washington photographer Jacqueline Bouvier. Also, during his many stays in the hospital during this time, Kennedy was able to compile a novel entitled Profiles In Courage that told the stories of six senators who faced difficult decisions but managed to make the correct choices. In 1957, this earned him a Pullitzer Prize in the field of biography. His writing ability had finally received the recognition that he never earned in college, and his fame grew greatly, making his name nearly household.

The Presidency

In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy ran on a platform entitled the "New Frontier" which, he vowed would help bring the nation out of its present economic slump through a tax cut. Running against vice-president Richard Nixon, Kennedy won one of the closest presidential elections ever due in large part to his outstanding performances on several nationally televised debates. At the forefront of Kennedyís legislative proposals were those that advocated tougher defense policies, a rigorous civil rights program, as well as a new system of progressive health care and housing. With this commitment to leading the nation into the "New Frontier," Kennedy also promoted a tough anti-communist foreign policy and further space exploration, even vowing that the United States would put a man on the moon before the close of the decade.

Shortly after settling into office, Kennedy faced the greatest crisis of his all too short stint as president. Hoping to overthrow communist leader Fidel Castro of Cuba, he ordered a band of exiled Cubans to do the job for him. Unfortunately, the aquatic operation, known as the "Bay of Pigs Invasion," was a total failure and led to the Russian installation of nuclear missiles on several bases on Cuban territory. When this was discovered in October of 1962 by United States aerial reconnaissance photos, the nation trembled with the fear of a nuclear war. In a hastened effort to avoid an all out war with Russia, Kennedy called for all offensive missiles directed towards Cuba to be quarantined. Fortunately, Russian president Nikita Kruschev soon backed down, and the order for the removal of all missile sites from Cuba was made, ending the immediate threat of a nuclear war. Despite the fact that his Bay of Pigs invasion had been a total failure, his quick thinking in responding to Russian missile placement in Cuba and consequent signing of a treaty barring the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons with Russia, earned him great political respect among the people of the nation who were already fascinated by his charming personality and dashing good looks.

Unfortunately, though the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest that the world ever came to nuclear war, the threat of communism was far from suppressed, and it continued to be the thorn in the side of his presidency. In 1963, continuing the United Statesí policy of containment towards communism, he ordered more troops to be sent into Vietnam to stop communist North Vietnam from taking over democratic SouthVietnam. By November of 1963, only 16,000 troops were in Vietnam, but the conflict showed definite signs of escalation. Sadly, president Kennedy was unable to see most of his policies through, nor was he able to see the disastrous effects of becoming involved in the Vietnam conflict, as he was gunned down in broad daylight while riding in a motorcade down the streets of Dallas on November 22, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald.

While there has been much debate concerning the issue of his assassination, the Warren Commission (which was appointed by succeeding President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination), officially acknowledged that the shooting was the act of a lone gunman. Sadly, in the years that have followed, this event has overshadowed the life and great accomplishments of the presidency of JFK. Nonetheless, the fact that anyone who was of reasonable age at the time of the shooting will never forget where they were, attests to the fact that this event was one of the great turning points of American history.

Historical Significance

Historically, the life and presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy read as a textbook of the 20th century. Born near the end of World War I, in his twenties, he saw the conflicts leading up to World War II and experienced first hand the horrors of the war. As a congressman in the House of Representatives and Senate during the 1950's, he dealt with the problems concerning the Korean War and the spread of communism, which persisted as a problem into his presidency with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginning of American involvement in the Vietnam War. While some viewed his rise to political power merely as the result of coming from an extremely wealthy family, his handling of the very near threat of a nuclear war with Russia as well as his civil rights legislation, which was later passed under president Johnson, and creation of the Peace Corps vividly illustrated that he was an extremely capable leader. History will remember the 35th president of the United States as one of the most popular and charismatic of all time; one who made great strides in fighting the threat of communism and nuclear war, but, because of an unfavorable Congress, was unable to see many of his proposals through during his short presidency. Americans everywhere will forever associate his death with the end of an age of innocence and the beginning of some of the most tumultuous times in American history.


Lasky, Victor. J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth. New Rochelle, New York. Arlington House, 1966.
Levine, I. E. Young Man in the White House: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. New York. Julian Messner Co., 1964.
Lowe, Jacques. Portrait: The Emergence of John F. Kennedy. New York. Branhall House, 1961.
Manchester, William. Portrait of a President. Toronto and Boston. Little Brown and Company, 1962.
Markmann, Charles Lam and Mark Sherwin. John F. Kennedy: A Sense of Purpose. New York. St. Martinís Press, 1961.
Parmet, Herbert S. Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy. New York. The Dial Press, 1980.
Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York. Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Schwarz, Urs. John F. Kennedy. London. Paul Hamlyn, 1964.
Sidey, Hugh. John F. Kennedy, President. New York. Atheneum, 1963.
Sorensen, Theodore C. The Kennedy Legacy. New York. The Macmillan Company, 1969.

Web Resources - the official white house biography - a great site for speeches, audio, and general information about JFK - memorable quotes, photos, and a look at the life of JFK Jr. - an excellent site for photos of the 35th president at any age - very good site for history of Jack's early life (from college to senator) - a great page for assassination info and the latest theories about it - outstanding index of all major speeches and debates - contains just about anything about JFK's life and also has info about his museum and library - provides an extensive range of links to other Kennedy pages and contains several speeches and famous photos