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The thirty-fifth President of the United States as well as the first Roman Catholic and youngest man to hold that office, Kennedy was a consummate politician whose eloquent vision for the nation and his assassination in 1963 make him one of the most intriguing figures in American history.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Irish-Catholic Immigrants with High Ambition
John F. Kennedy’s Irish-Catholic ancestors fled famine in Ireland during the nineteenth century, and hoped to find a better way of life in the United States. After leaving Dunganstown in 1849, Kennedy’s great-grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. His son, Patrick J. Kennedy Jr. found success in the arenas of banking and Boston politics after owning three saloons in the city. His son, Kennedy’s father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, went on to gain admission to Harvard College, thereby breaking through social barriers that favored Boston’s Protestant elite. Joseph later married Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Kennedy’s mother.
Joseph Kennedy established a reputation for using ruthless business practices in banking, real estate, stock market speculation, motion pictures, and liquor imports— all of which brought him immense wealth. After making contributions to the 1932 presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Kennedy was appointed to several government positions: chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission (1934—36), chairman of the Maritime Commission (1937), and ambassador to Great Britain (193740). However, he retreated from the public eye abruptly after expressing the belief that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler could not be defeated. By this act he alienated himself from Roosevelt and in advertantly checked the momentum of his political career.
A Childhood of Competition and Illness
The second of nine highly competitive children, John F. Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. of his siblings, Joe Jr., the eldest, was their father’s favorite and he prided himself on being a role model for the rest of the children. Throughout his youth, John Kennedy was frequently ill with complications from what was later diagnosed to be Addison’s disease, a failure of the adrenal glands. in fact, his condition was so serious that last rites were administered by a Catholic priest on four separate occasions. His image-conscious father hid Kennedy’s low energy, chronic pain, impaired immune functioning, and exceptionally high fevers from public view as much as possible; he feared that a weak image would damage Kennedy’s image as a future leader. To explain Kennedy’s condition, his father offered stories about injuries from athletics and war. Extending upon his efforts to shape the image of each of his children, Joseph Kennedy took care to educate them in international affairs and politics, impressing upon them the legacy of the family’s success.
when Kennedy was ten, the family moved to an estate outside of New York City, in Bronxville. Apart from a two-year stay in London, England, the Kennedys stayed in New York until 1941, when they began to split their time between seasonal homes in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts; Florida; the French Riviera; and various apartments in New York City. Kennedy eventually came to manage his disease with regular injections of steroids, which altered his physical appearance, causing inflammation of his face and a discoloration of his skin.
Kennedy was educated at Choate, an Episcopal preparatory school located in Connecticut. His higher education, however, was delayed due to illness. Later, from 1936 until 1940, he attended Harvard University, where he majored in history. During that time, he took leave to act as a personal secretary for his father, who was traveling through Europe as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. In 1940, Kennedy was awarded an honors degree for his thesis, which analyzed England’s slow response to German rearmament. The next year, Kennedy made his debut in the literary world by republishing this thesis under the title Why England Slept. The work quickly became a best-seller.
During his youth, Kennedy developed a reputation as a ladies’ man. Shortly after his election to the U.S. Senate in January 1953, he began dating Jacqueline (Jackie) Bouvier, who was thirteen years his junior. Born to a wealthy family in Southampton, New York, Jacqueline was working as a reporter for a Washington newspaper. She challenged and stimulated Kennedy with her sharp wit and vibrant spirit. That September, they married in Newport, Rhode Island, in an event labeled the social event of the year.
Although the Kennedys maintained an apartment in Boston, most of their time was spent living in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. They spent their weekends at a country house near Middleburg, Virginia, where Jacqueline rode horses. Despite outward appearances, the Kennedys’ marriage was deeply troubled. Kennedy’s infidelities, Jacqueline’s dislike of politics, and tension between the two families all contributed to the strain on the bond between the couple, which appeared dire at several points during their marriage. Things were made even worse in 1956 when Jacqueline’s first child was stillborn and John was away in Europe, partying. Two healthy children followed: Caroline Bouvier Kennedy in 1957 and John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. in 1960. A fourth child, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, was born August 7, 1963, but died two days later.
Service in the Navy during World War II
In September of 1941, not long before the United States entered World War II (1939-45), John Kennedy enlisted into the U.S. Navy, following in the footsteps of his older brother Joe, Jr. After being accused and then cleared of being a Nazi spy, in part due to his romantic involvement with an F.B.I. employee, he was sent to the Pacific theater of war with a patrol torpedo (PT boat) squadron. While stationed in the Solomon Islands, a boat under his command was destroyed by a Japanese destroyer, leading some people to question his abilities as a commander. However, he was commended for his heroism in rescuing his injured crew. He was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart, and proclaimed a hero by the New York Times. A recurring back problem forced him to return home not long after the incident.
Return to Political Career
In 1946, Kennedy won election to the U.S. Congress from Massachusetts’ 11th District, and then served as a representative for parts of Boston and Cambridge. In 1952, Kennedy challenged Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts and won by a narrow margin. He was easily reelected in 1958.
Best-seller Establishes Intellectual Reputation
Throughout the 1950s Kennedy amassed a reputation based largely on his charisma, good looks, and family name. However, in 1955, he published a best-selling book, Profiles in Courage, which marked Kennedy as an intellectual in politics and poised him for the presidency. The book consists of biographical sketches of political leaders who had risked everything, displaying exceptional courage, for their convictions. With the help of his father’s connections and active efforts lobbying influential friends, the book won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize. Kennedy accepted the prize despite indications that the book had been coauthored by his speechwriter Theodore Sorensen, thereby arousing suspicions about Kennedy’s integrity and reputation. Those suspicions were never resolved during Kennedy’s lifetime and extended into the historical assessments of his legacy. Kennedy published a third book, A Nation of Immigrants, in 1959. It surveys the history of immigration to the United States and makes suggestions for future policy.
Kennedy won the 1960 presidential election against Richard Nixon by an extremely narrow margin. During his brief term as president, Kennedy narrowly averted nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and worked for detente with the Soviet Union. In an effort to contain communism, he expanded the U.S. military and committed to aiding the government of South Vietnam. In the domestic arena, Kennedy established the Peace Corps and mandated a manned mission to the Moon by 1970. He also enforced laws to integrate American society and uphold the civil rights of African-Americans, which later led to passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Assassination and Aftermath
On November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas, Kennedy was assassinated by rifle fire. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States that same day. The news of Kennedy’s death spread throughout the United States, profoundly shocking everyone. Two days later, on November 24, Kennedy’s suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled leftist who had defected to the Soviet Union and then returned, was himself shot to death by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator. An enormous emotional reaction reverberated for decades after these events and contributed to the plethora of conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death, many of which are still debated by scholars today.
Works in Literary Context
In speeches, books, and essays, Kennedy challenged complacent attitudes on a number of disturbing issues facing the country and urged active citizenship among Americans, inspiring hope for peace and prosperity in a nuclear age mired in cold war. His work was heavily influenced by contributions from and collaborations with his speech-writer Theodore Sorsensen.
In Profiles in Courage, Kennedy makes a case for courage as one of the most important human virtues by presenting nine individuals who exhibited the trait during their political career. In it, he persuades readers by commenting on the flaws of each person as well as their more admirable qualities, thus creating hope for honesty in the political arena. Kennedy continued to generate hopeful expectations upon his entry into the presidency, proclaiming: ”Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Perhaps most memorably, Kennedy exhorted Americans to action with this memorable directive: ”And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Influence and Legacy
During his lifetime, Kennedy captured the imagination of the public, who largely considered him a dynamic leader during difficult times. He is among the most-discussed presidents in the history of the United States, who continues to be the subject of a wide body of historical scholarship. He is remembered for his somewhat ironic personality, hesitant contribution to the civil-rights movement, leadership during the cold war, and tragic early death.
Works in Critical Context
Concerning Kennedy’s presidency, critics have marked an abrupt change of style from past administrations, and some have noted Kennedy’s use of the relatively new medium of television to imprint his distinct style. Some have doubted the sincerity of his rhetoric, citing the illusory nature of his language in relation to his actual achievements in both foreign and domestic policy. Yet many others have seen wit, intelligence, and linguistic simplicity in his thought that often articulate the concerns of cultural diversity and appeal for unity of purpose.
Three of Kennedy’s four books remain in print today. Why England Slept may now be of only historical interest, as the product of Kennedy’s undergraduate years. However, Kennedy’s observations about immigration in A Nation of Immigrants continue to be valued as the issue remains a vexed one in the twenty-first century. The book appears in a modern edition, with an introduction by Kennedy’s brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and a foreword by the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. However, it is Profiles in Courage that remains Kennedy’s most notable and lasting literary achievement.
Profiles in Courage
Upon its publication, Profiles in Courage became an immediate best-seller, receiving praise from scholars and critics across the United States. In her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1991), Doris Kearns Goodwin explains that Profiles in Courage was ”written in clear, dramatic language” such that it ”found a responsive chord with the ‘silent generation’—the generation that had seemingly opted for conformity and success.” Indeed, Cabell Phillips of the New York Times found that the book was ”the sort to restore respect for a venerable and much abused profession.” However, the question of authorship of Profiles in Courage remains subject to lively debate. As John A. Barnes explains in his biography John F. Kennedy on Leadership (2005), ”While biographers such as Herbert Pamet have concluded that Kennedy did little or no work on Profiles in Courage, new research, especially by author Thurston Clark has revealed otherwise.” However, in his autobiography, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (2008), Kennedy’s speechwriter Theodore C. Sorensen writes that he did a first draft of most of the chapters.”
- Bernstein, Irving. Promises Kept. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Bishop, Jim. A Day in the Life of President Kennedy. New York: Random House, 1964.
- Brogan, Hugh. Kennedy. New York: Longman, 1996.
- Brown, Thomas. JFK: History of an Image. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1988.
- Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.
- Goodwin, Richard N. Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. Boston: Little Brown, 1988.
- Hoare, Stephen. The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. Takoma Park, Md.: Dryad Press, 1988.
- Hunt, Conover. JFK for a New Generation. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1996.
- Levine, I. E. John Kennedy: Young Man in the White House. Bellmore, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish, 1991.
- Lowe, Jacques. Camelot: The Kennedy Years. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews and McMeel, 1996.
- Mayer, Robert. JFK. New York: Dutton, 1989.
- Pietrusza, David. John F. Kennedy. San Diego.: Lucent Books, 1997.
- Randall, Marta. John F. Kennedy. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
- Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profile in Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
- Schwab, Peter, and J. Lee Shneidman. John F. Kennedy. Boston: Twayne, 1974.
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