I have taken the liberty of compiling all my history notes on the political history of JFK into sentences for easier reading.
45 years ago (in 2009), an assassin terminated the life of the youngest President in the history of the United States: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. During his short term, which lasted a mere 1,036 days, the 35th President of the United States brought radical change, like removing measures that prevented certain African-Americans from voting in certain states, in the face of stiff conservative opposition. However, why did John F. Kennedy decide to bring radical change to America? One of Kennedy’s main reasons was morality: he wanted to do what he thought was right, such as protecting union rights. He was also motivated by his love of his country, which is evident in his stance on the St. Lawrence Seaway, which would benefit America. Last, but not least, President Kennedy was motivated by political reasons; he did not want to be defeated in an election or lose his core group of supporters. These three reasons were Kennedy’s primary motivators in his push for radical change.
The United States, in the 60′s, desired radical change. It was embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, threatened by the spread of Communism across the world, and had many domestic problems, such as the issue of civil rights, to deal with. Not only that, but also the United States was in the midst of an economic and unemployment crisis. Americans were unsure about the direction they were headed, and anxious about what the future held. An inspirational leader with fresh ideas would be needed. America found that leader in John F. Kennedy, a young liberal-minded Democratic Senator.
Before he was a Democratic Senator though, Kennedy entered the political arena as a Democratic Congressman: specifically, from the Eleventh Congressional District of Massachusetts, a working-class district. He joined the slightly more liberal Democratic Party most likely because it reflected his beliefs more than the Republican Party. After a decisive victory in the Democratic primary, he annihilated his Republican opponent with a majority of the votes cast, becoming Congressman in January 1947. According to one of his closest advisers, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy “… entered the political arena — not to take [his brother] Joe’s place, as is often alleged, not to compete subconsciously with him, but as an expression of his own ideals and interests.” (Uschan, 1999) His own ideals and interests were what he felt was as being right, in a moral sense. Kennedy would soon express his ideals and interests on an important bill: the Taft-Hartley Labor Act. In 1947, the Republican Party regained control of the House of Representatives, leaving the Democrats in the minority. With regards to the proposed act, “labor leaders dubbed it a ‘slave labor’ bill and twenty-eight Democratic members of Congress declared it a ‘new guarantee of industrial slavery.’” (Wagner, 2002) Among the protesting Democrats was Kennedy, who exclaimed that the bill would “strike down in one devastating blow the union shop, industry-wide bargaining, and so strangle collective bargaining with restraints and limitations as to make it ineffectual.” (Unknown, 1960) Even though Kennedy was part of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives, he courageously stood by his pro-union beliefs. Unfortunately for Kennedy, the bill was passed, despite President Truman’s veto. However, what is important is that Kennedy stood by his ideals and interests, even when it was in the minority. Another example of an issue that he felt passionately about was government involvement in housing for veterans and low-income workers, and tried unsuccessfully to get his bill passed. Each time, the American Legion, a powerful patriotic organization, fought it, citing its opposition to government intervention. The Congressman from Massachusetts eventually succeeded in getting his bill passed in 1948 by boldly standing up to the American Legion, which was a great victory for what he believed to be right. He also pursued other issues which he believed were of grave importance, some of which were quite radical at the time, such as programs which would help the poor, taxation system reform, a higher minimum wage and limited government spending. Kennedy did not believe that party lines should restrict what he believed in; he once remarked, “It was never drilled into me that I was responsible to some political boss in the Eleventh District”. (Uschan, 1999) Basically, Kennedy did not think that there were any boundaries that he should adhere to, as long as he was doing the right thing. Thus, Kennedy valued morality: “a sense of right and wrong according to conscience” (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).
After serving in the House of Representatives for nearly three terms, John F. Kennedy decided to run for the Senate, so he could do more than he felt that he could do in the House. In 1952, Kennedy beat the Republican incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., by a slim margin of 70,000 votes, thanks to unexpected newspaper endorsements, a strong grassroots organization, a massive amount of money and effective use of television. Kennedy was sworn in as a senator from Massachusetts on January 3, 1953. As Senator, Kennedy sometimes voted for measures that would hurt his state, but would be good for the entire country, the country that he loved so dearly. An example of this is his support of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1954; it would hurt Boston, a major port in Massachusetts, but it would help the economy of the United States. The point of the project was “to build a series of locks and dams through the impassable sections… in the St. Lawrence River, opening the North American heartland to ocean shipping and unleashing an enormous flow of new electric power.” (O’Brien, 2005) Clearly, it would help the nation, but it would reduce Boston’s importance as a major port, and could cost jobs. Pacing around his office, Kennedy said, “Joe [his speechwriter], I just don’t know what to do on this one. It’s one of the toughest that I’ve had to decide. I’m trying to balance the national good against the interest of my own state and the New England area.” (O’Brien, 2005) As mentioned above, Kennedy decided to vote in favour of the measure, for the national good. Even though it was unpopular among his constituents, he decided to choose the option which would help his country the most; arguably, a radical idea among senators. However, that was not Kennedy’s sole moment of courage in the Senate. In January 1957, Kennedy became a member of one of the most prestigious committees in the Senate: the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While on the committee, he began to examine the Eisenhower administration’s foreign policy and found what he believed to be terrible errors. He accused the administration of “failing to consider ‘new realities’ such as the rising tide of nationalism around the world and the effects of the breakup of European colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia.” (Uschan, 1999) Clearly, he was looking out for his country; he wanted it to be prepared for the challenges facing the world at that time. Some of the old ideas he felt the administration was clinging to were “war and peace, friend and foe, victory and defeat” and they had to be “reshaped in the light of new realities”. (Uschan, 1999) Kennedy was undoubtedly audacious, especially when it concerned his country, the United States.
During his distinguished career as a United States Senator, Kennedy had to have back surgery for his severe back pain in late 1954. In February 1955, he had to return to New York for a second operation. Both times, he was severely sick, and nearly died. While he was recovering, he wrote the book which would bring him into the national spotlight: Profiles in Courage. Inspirational lines such as “The stories of past courage can define that ingredient—they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.” (Kennedy, 1956) caused his book to become an instant bestseller. In fact, the fame that he got from Profiles in Courage led to the media considering him as a potential candidate as the vice presidential nominee on the 1956 Democratic ticket. Even though he lost the nomination, “it was Kennedy’s first taste of presidential politics, and he had loved it.” (Uschan, 1999) It seems that Profiles in Courage served as the catalyst for Kennedy’s next career: the presidency.
Shortly after the 1956 Democratic National Convention, John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the President of the United States of America. Even though he could potentially win by gaining delegates “behind the scenes”, he refused. Giving speeches and attending rallies across the country, Kennedy gathered supporters and volunteers for the vicious primary season. He outspent his opponents, but had two weaknesses: his youth and his Catholicism. In a fiercely Protestant country, Catholicism was an outright curse. West Virginia, a state which was 95% Protestant, was on the primary schedule, and would become the site of one of the fiercest battles in modern political history. However, on election night, Kennedy pulled off the impossible: 61% of the popular vote, a majority. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey, resented Kennedy’s monetary advantage, stirring up anti-Kennedy sentiments among the Democrats. Despite that, it appeared that Kennedy was unstoppable.
At the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Kennedy overwhelmingly won all the primaries that he entered in and even an additional three by write-in ballots, thus securing the nomination. He decided to choose Lyndon B. Johnson, the senator from Texas, for the Democratic ticket, as he believed that Johnson would secure votes from conservative voters and Texans. On July 15th, Kennedy announced the theme of his campaign in his nomination acceptance speech: “We stand on the edge of a New Frontier… a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfilled hopes and threats.” (Kennedy, 1960) Change, perhaps radical, was coming to America.
Armed with a popular running mate and an inspirational campaign theme, Kennedy headed to the ultimate showdown with his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon: the first Presidential debate. Their appearances contrasted severely; Kennedy looked healthy and young, while Nixon looked sick and unshaven because of his recent knee injury. People who watched the debate overwhelmingly thought that Kennedy won. The second major event of the campaign was John, and his brother, Robert, helping to get Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail after he was arrested for attempting to integrate a restaurant. The result of the first debate in conjunction with the surge of African-American support for Kennedy gave Kennedy an Electoral College victory of 303 Electoral Votes to 219 Electoral Votes for Nixon. The popular vote was much closer, however. Regardless, Kennedy was going to the White House.
The big day, January 20, 1961, eventually came: Kennedy’s inauguration as President of the United States of America. His inaugural speech foreshadowed the radical change that was to come with memorable quotes like “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life”, “Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce” and “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (Kennedy, 1961) They foreshadowed the radical change which Kennedy would attempt to bring en masse: a country that could heal its social problems and keep its demons at bay, a country that could explore the unknown and sustain its culture, and a country that could depend on the support of the people and vice versa. It seems that even before Kennedy could enter the White House, his “to-do list” was already full.
The first item on his list was the economic crisis; barely a month after his inauguration, he submitted a comprehensive list of proposals to jump-start the economy. Some of his radical ideas were embedded among the proposals, such as a higher minimum wage, additional unemployment benefits, government-assisted housing for families in trouble and a plan to retrain unemployed workers. However, his plan for lowering taxes was rejected. Kennedy was undoubtedly concerned about the common man in those tough times, most likely because they were the core supporters of the Democratic Party, and perhaps he felt that it was right to help the people most affected by the economic crisis. The massive amount of federal dollars diverted for the economy jump-started the economy and all but eliminated the economic crisis by the following year.
Not only was Kennedy concerned about the economy, he was also extremely concerned about Communism and its threat to the United States. His dedication to his country led to one of most disastrous decisions: the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba on April 17, 1960. The goal of the invasion was to overthrow Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in nearby Cuba, but it failed miserably, since Castro was prepared for the invasion. The 1,500 Cuban exiles who attempted to invade Cuba were either captured or killed. Kennedy, in his youth, also refused to commit American lives to the dangerous mission when it was clear that the exiles were not faring well. Thus, his love of America ironically caused the Cubans to enjoy a massive victory at his expense. A few short months later, in August, Kennedy faced his next crisis: Berlin. The East Germans were beginning to erect the Berlin Wall. Since Germany was in between the Western and Communist spheres of influence, Kennedy could not let the Communists “gain” ground in Berlin; thus, he decided to show the East Germans that the United States was committed to keeping Berlin “free”: he sent a 350 truck convoy, filled with troops, to drive to East Berlin. After a 14 hour standoff, they were allowed to proceed. Kennedy’s calm and measured decision, this time, allowed the United States to emerge unscathed and set back the Communists. The next threat was the Soviet Union’s apparent control of space because on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Kennedy reacted with a special address to Congress on May 25, 1961, where he announced:
If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom [capitalist countries] and tyranny [Communist countries], the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks [Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to orbit the earth] should have made clear to us all… the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which [ideological] road they should take… (Kennedy, 1961)
Evidently, Kennedy believed that the Cold War would be determined by the “winner” of the “war” in space. Thinking of the Cold War in this way was a radical idea, and thinking of space in this way was a radical idea. He was so committed to this “New Frontier” that he addressed Congress in 1961 with “…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 Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” (Kennedy, 1961) Congress, impressed with Kennedy’s plan to “beat” the Communists, approved additional funding for the space project. Kennedy’s fierce dedication to the space program allowed the United States to eventually overtake the Soviet Union in space when Neil Armstrong and his crew landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Kennedy’s love of his country had paid off this time. The Communists, however, did not let Kennedy off the hook. On October 16, 1962, Kennedy saw photos that proved the existence of Cuban nuclear missiles; these photos nearly pushed America and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy’s wise decision of a quarantine (basically, a blockade) was a radical departure from other ideas like invasion or nuclear strikes, but it played a major role in relieving the tension. Kennedy threatened to quarantine Cuba if the Soviets did not remove the nuclear missiles; Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles if and only if the United States removed its nuclear missiles from Turkey. Kennedy agreed, and nuclear war was averted. Here, Kennedy’s radical idea of a quarantine prevented nuclear war, thus saving his country. Even though Kennedy had some trouble at the beginning of his term with regards to foreign affairs and Communism, all of his decisions were based in the national interest from his point of view; he is undoubtedly a patriot.
Arguably, Kennedy’s greatest challenge came not from Communism, but from the civil rights movement. The situation was dire; “While Kennedy was president, the civil rights movement exploded, making major strides in waking up Americans to the facts of racism and discrimination in their nation.” (Uschan, 1999) In the face of such turmoil at home, Kennedy decided to take some steps in helping African-Americans. He opened up the vote to them. Previously, poll taxes and education requirements were required for voting in certain states; in 1962, Kennedy submitted two measures that would remove these requirements. His plan succeeded partly; poll taxes were banned, but education requirements were kept in place by Southern conservatives. He also issued executive orders demanding that segregation and discrimination in the federal government and armed services be banned, and urged agencies in the government to hire additional African-Americans. However, African-Americans felt that Kennedy was moving too slowly. This was partly due to Kennedy’s political ambitions; he did not want to alienate Southerners, which were an important voting bloc. Caroline Kennedy, his daughter, wrote in the foreword of his book, Profiles in Courage, “In 1963, when cities across the South were burning with the long-delayed promise of civil rights… President Kennedy put the full power of the federal government on the side of those seeking integration because it was the right thing to do.” (Kennedy, 2003) Here, Kennedy’s morals clashed with his political ambitions. Even though it would cost him votes in the 1964 election, Kennedy decided to firmly support the people in the civil rights movement because “it was the right thing to do”. (Kennedy, 2003) On June 22, 1963, Kennedy took a radical step: he introduced legislation that would help end segregation. Unfortunately, Southern conservatives felt that it was too radical; they stalled the bill in the Senate. Moreover, by introducing this piece of legislation, Kennedy had effectively lost their support. Undoubtedly, Kennedy protected his country from complete civil disorder, did what he felt was right and initially was motivated by political gain, but eventually decided that his sense of right and wrong and the country that he loved were more important than votes.
Determined to bring radical change to America, Kennedy proposed over 653 pieces of legislation in his first two years as President, and about 304 passed, slightly less than half. Over half of his proposals did not pass because of conservative opposition to radical ideas like Medicare for seniors and increased funding for education, which he believed were important for the nation. However, 1,036 days into his first term as President, Kennedy’s life was tragically ended on the streets of Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. In a matter of seconds, his life was violently terminated by three well-aimed bullets. No one definitely knows why Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy, but one thing is for sure: one of the most audacious presidents in the history of the United States did not die a meaningless death. Within a decade, the radical measures that he brought forward: equal rights, tax cut proposals, among many others, were passed. His radical proposal to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade was accomplished by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. He lived up to his famous quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (Kennedy, 1961) by doing the best job that he could for his country, and his country returned the favour by continuing the radical change that he initiated.
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