When I ask students what they know about John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), almost
everyone’s first answer is “he was assassinated.” But JFK did more than just get
killed while he was in office.
Kennedy was an unusual candidate. For starters, he was young—only 43. I know
that might not seem young to you, but in terms of presidents, trust me, that’s
young. More controversial than his age, however, was his religion. JFK was Roman
Catholic. Never before had the American public elected a Catholic president.
Many people feared that he would answer to the Pope instead of to the people.
So, how did Kennedy win the 1960 election? If I had to answer in just one word,
the word would be “Television.” Of course, it was more complex than that; the
economy was bad, people weren’t thrilled with Eisenhower’s diplomacy (or lack
there of), and anxiety about the Cold War was high. All those things contributed
to the desire for a change in leadership. Kennedy was running against Nixon, who
had been Eisenhower’s vice president. Nixon was definitely associated with the
previous presidency. So, it wasn’t just about television. But Kennedy definitely
showed the power of the medium.
The Kennedy Nixon debate in September of 1960 was the first televised political
debate. 70 million people tuned it (nothing else was on, after all). Kennedy
looked the part of the president. He was well spoken and had charisma. Nixon
was hoping to expose Kennedy’s inexperience, but Kennedy came across as
poised and knowledgeable. Kennedy also formed ties with Martin Luther King, Jr.
This assured him the vote of many African Americans. Many people felt hopeful
about JFK. Even so, he did not win easily. The 1960 election was a close one.
Once elected, the Kennedy persona continued to inspire Americans. Kennedy
was the darling of the press. People were drawn to the glamour of the charming
young president and his gracious and beautiful wife. Women copied Jacqueline
Kennedy’s style. Because people were so captivated by the first family, the
Kennedy presidency is sometimes referred to as “Camelot.” Camelot refers to the
court of King Arthur. The legend of King Arthur describes a time in history when
romantic ideals were held by a leader who was respected and admired by his
Had JFK not been assassinated, it is very possible that history would have
remembered him differently. During his short time as president, Kennedy did
several things that were considered controversial.
Kennedy tripled the nation’s nuclear capabilities. He also boosted non-nuclear
defense systems. While Eisenhower used the threat of nuclear warfare to keep the
Soviets in check, Kennedy was unwilling to maintain this appearance. He felt it
was necessary to have a policy of “flexible response.” Flexible response meant
that other methods of warfare would be considered before nuclear weapons,
unless the Soviets first used their nuclear weapons.
Part of Kennedy’s flexible response plan involved creating the Green Berets, or the
US Army Special Forces. The Green Berets were called the green berets because
they wore green berets (it seems so obvious all typed out like that). Not just
anyone could be a Green Beret. The men who made up the Special Forces were
highly intelligent and well trained.
Kennedy also inherited the problem of Cuba. Eisenhower had cut off connections
with Cuba because the new leader, Fidel Castro. Castro had led a revolution in
Cuba. The previous leader, Fulgencio Batista, was a dictator. Castro promised a
democratic government. Once he was in power, however, he started acting
more like a dictator himself. The US was particularly concerned with his economic
policy—communism. American companies controlled over 75% of the cropland in
Cuba. Castro took over the sugar industry and gave the land to the peasants to
farm. Congress put up barriers against sugar trading, and Castro accepted aid
from the Soviet Union. Cubans who objected to Castro’s leadership did not fair
well. About 10% of Cuba’s population fled to the United States for political
One of Kennedy’s first tasks as president was to sort out Cuba. The CIA, during the
previous administration, had been training Cuban exiles for an invasion of Cuba.
The plan was that 1,400 Cubans and a smaller group of US soldiers would enter
Cuba, attack Castro’s army, and start a revolution that would ultimately result in
Castro being overthrown. Kennedy learned of this plan about a week into his
presidency. He approved the plan to go forward.
The plan went forward on April 17, 1961. It did not go well. The soldiers who
landed at the Bay of Pigs faced a huge Cuban army. Even worse, Castro’s army
had Soviet air support, while the American trained soldiers had none whatsoever.
Kennedy, cleaning up the mess afterwards, paid $53 million for the release of
captured exiles. He promised to resist Communist control of Cuba.
The opportunity for resistance came quickly. In 1962, US intelligence had evidence
of nuclear weapons on Soviet missile bases in Cuba. In late October, Kennedy
made it known that an attack from Cuba would result in all out nuclear war
against the Soviet Union. The nation held its collective breath for six days,
anticipating nuclear war. 100,000 troops waited in Florida. Then, a break—
Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in Cuba. In exchange, the US secretly
removed missiles from Turkey.
Remember how, after WWII, Germany found herself split into Free West Germany
and Communist East Germany? Remember the blockades put up by the Soviets
around Berlin, forcing the US and Great Britain to airlift supplies to West Berlin? The
airlifts greatly boosted the status of the US in the world. East Germans were not
immune to the attraction of the west. About 3 million people fled from the
communist half of Germany to the free half. They talked about how bad things
were under communism. The US adored these refugees. Khrushchev did not.
They made him look like a failure. When they left, they took their labor and their
money with them, which hurt the economy. Khrushchev needed to stop them.
In 1961, Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall. It divided East and West Berlin. The
communist government put guards
with machine guns at the wall. In 1963,
Kennedy gave a famous speech in
front of the wall. It became known as
the Ich bin ein Berliner speech. This is
because, during the speech, he
declared in German “I am a Berliner.”
Kennedy also said that anyone who
thinks Communism is the wave of the
future should come to Berlin. He
stated: "Freedom has many difficulties
One of Kennedy’s notecards from his speech at and democracy is not perfect, but we
the Berlin Wall, with the German phrase “I am a have never had to put a wall up to
Berliner” written out phonetically at the top. keep our people in." It was clear that
the people of West Berlin were much
better off than those of East Berlin. Communism was worth fighting.
It was this desire to preserve and spread freedom that fueled the space program.
In April 1961, the Soviets sent a man into space. The Soviets called their astronauts
“cosmonauts.” The US quickly invested in sending an astronaut into space. It took
less than a month to catch up with the Soviets. Kennedy saw space as a
challenge. He promised that Americans would land the first man on the moon.
NASA built a launch pad in Florida and a mission control in Texas for that purpose.
Kennedy didn’t set out to make space the only New Frontier. In his vision, the new
frontier was also the war against poverty, ignorance and prejudice. But very few
of his social programs came to fruition. He succeeded in raising the minimum
wage. But the majority of the reason the economy got better under Kennedy was
because the Cold War created so many arms contracts.
While Kennedy’s plans for social aid in the US were not well supported, his plans to
help overseas were successful. His Alliance for Progress, which assisted Latin
American countries with technology, was approved. People supported this plan
because they thought it would keep other countries from becoming communist.
Cuba scared people and they didn’t want any more communist neighbors to the
The Peace Corps was also very successful. The Peace Corps is made up of
volunteers. Most are new college graduates, but any adult can join. The
volunteers were sent to developing nations, particularly those in Latin America,
Asia, and Africa. The volunteers helped with whatever they could, including
education, health, and food production.
Kennedy and Khrushchev both recognized the need to avoid nuclear war. In
1963, a “hot line” was established between the Kremlin (where Khrushchev lived)
and the White House (where Kennedy lived). This allowed them to immediately
discuss issues as they arose.
In 1963, Kennedy presented Congress with a radical civil rights bill. He began to
lose popularity because of his focus on civil rights. On November 22, 1963,
Kennedy went to Dallas to try to gain back popularity. Texas was a conservative
state, but Kennedy was well received in Dallas. That is, until his limousine passed
the Texas School Book Depository. At that moment, everything changed.
Kennedy was shot in the head. His pretty young wife sat next to him, his brains on
The tragedy stopped America cold. While America watched on television, Lyndon
B. Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, was sworn in on Air Force One.
Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of JFK’s assassination. His prints had been found
on the rifle that fired the fatal shot. He had suspicious ties to Castro. The public
watched his every move on television. While he was being moved from one jail to
another, Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald. While many Americans admired him
for his actions, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He died of
natural causes while waiting for his appeal.
Many people believed that Kennedy’s assassination was not the action of a single
man but part of a conspiracy. The Warren Commission was set up to investigate.
First, it found that Oswald acted alone. Then, in the late 70s, it was said there was
evidence of a conspiracy. People still review the information from the Warren
Commission, looking for proof of a conspiracy. If you enjoy that sort of thing, rent
JFK (1991). It’s a pretty good representation of the conspiracy theories surrounding
the Grassy Knoll.