Study Guide

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy Introduction

John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, is one of the most celebrated and idolized figures in American history. Born into a wealthy, well-connected family, Kennedy was bred for a life in politics. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II—JFK earned several medals for his bravery—he ran for Congress and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. Kennedy served in Congress for fourteen years—six in the House and eight in the Senate—and built a real name for himself in the Democratic Party. 

With the help of his father's money, Kennedy launched a presidential campaign in 1959; by virtue of his charm and charisma, Kennedy overcame anti-Catholic prejudice to win the presidency in 1960, defeating Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in decades. Though his presidency was characterized by a mixed bag of blunders (the Bay of Pigs), successes (the Cuban Missile Crisis), and indiscretions (affairs with numerous women), Kennedy's charisma was a constant and his vision of American progress was undeniably inspiring. Tragically, John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963, ending one of the most promising political careers of the 20th century far too early.

Although John F. Kennedy's tenure as commander-in-chief was tragically short—only two years and ten months passed between his inauguration and his assassination—and his accomplishments in the White House relatively modest, he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential presidents of all time.

Why? The answer is simple. JFK was—and is—an American icon.

As the youngest person ever to be elected president, he charmed the nation with his charisma and good looks, injecting new energy into the federal government at a turning point in U.S. history. Kennedy ushered in the tumultuous 1960s, a decade of great activism and social change, with an idealistic message of empowerment: "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." Through his actions and rhetoric, Kennedy captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation of young people, urging them to participate in civic life, engage with the world, and fight for equality. Even though his presidency did not yield a wealth of concrete political accomplishments (and JFK made his fair share of mistakes as well), his legacy in American politics has been profound. By issuing a mandate for public service and inspiring a nation to take on all the challenges of a new era, JFK helped set the stage for the major social, cultural, and political changes of the past half century.

John F. Kennedy Trivia

  • In his first year at Choate, due to his gaunt complexion, Jack was dubbed "Rat Face."

Jack's sister, Rosemary, was one of the first mentally disabled people in the world to undergo a prefrontal lobotomy.

During his presidency, Jack nicknamed two White House secretaries—both of whom he was sleeping with—Fiddle and Faddle.

In his 1963 address to the residents of West Germany, John F. Kennedy proclaimed, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Many people believe that, due to a grammar mistake, the statement translates to "I am a jelly doughnut." However, Kennedy made no such grammar gaffe. Any German speaker, past or present, would understand the statement to mean, "I am a resident of Berlin."

John F. Kennedy is the youngest person in history to be elected President of the United States.

John F. Kennedy Resources

Books

Richard Avedon, The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family (2007)
Avedon, one of America's most distinguished photographers, presents over seventy-five Kennedy family photos taken in late 1960, just three weeks before Jack's inauguration. The book also includes a foreword and introductory essay that provide some historical context. A large part of the Kennedy appeal was the Kennedy image—this book gives insight into the visual allure of America's iconic family.

Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life (2003)
In this biography of John F. Kennedy, Robert Dallek provides a rich account of Jack's life, not only discussing the future president's political decisions but also examining his early years. Dallek makes terrific use of primary source material (including excerpts from JFK's diaries) in this well-researched book.

James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (2008)
Conspiracy theories abound, but this book by James Douglass uses a critical lens to investigate John F. Kennedy's assassination. Douglass discusses CIA involvement, Lee Harvey Oswald's role (or lack thereof) in the murder, Lyndon B. Johnson, and a possible government cover-up. The book also includes commentary on JFK's presidency and his domestic and foreign policy decisions. If you like footnotes, you'll like this book.

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1956)
Jack Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book investigates the "political courage" of eight United States senators who risked rejection and re-election to stand up for issues about which they felt passionate. For insight into Kennedy's political philosophy, check this one out.

Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days (1968)
Bobby's memoir (published after his assassination) documents the decisions that shaped the Cuban Missile Crisis and gives a behind-the-scenes account of the meetings and conversations that took place in October 1962.

Ted Sorensen, Counselor (2008)
In his autobiography, Sorensen chronicles his relationship with John F. Kennedy and his role as Jack's speechwriter in the Senate and the White House. As one of Jack's closest advisers, Sorensen was privy to the inner workings of presidential politics, and offers insight into the dynamics of the Kennedy administration. Sorensen pays particular attention to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the handling of Jack's negotiations with Khrushchev.

David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, (2008)
Unlike other authors who write about John F. Kennedy, Talbot chooses to focus primarily on the president's relationship with his Attorney General (and younger brother), Bobby. The two brothers had an intensely close bond; having served as Jack's campaign manager for years, Bobby was adept at spur-of-the-moment decisions and political maneuvering. Together, Jack and Bobby formed one of the most tightly-knitted administrations—this book examines how that relationship impacted Jack's presidency.

Images

President Kennedy
John F. Kennedy's official White House photo, 1961

In the Navy
Jack aboard the PT 109, 1943

"Ask What You Can Do for Your Country"
Jack's Inauguration, January 20th, 1961

Vienna Summit
Jack's Meeting with Khrushchev, 1961

Three Brothers
Jack, Bobby, and Teddy at the White House

The Happy Family
The Kennedys at their summer home in Hyannis Port, 1962

Father and Daughter
Jack and Caroline, 1963

Arlington Cemetery
John F. Kennedy's Funeral, November 25th, 1963

Movies & TV

Crisis—Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)
This 53-minute documentary presents footage of Jack and Bobby handling a 1963 conflict with Governor George Wallace at the University of Alabama. The video showcases the decision-making processes that characterized the Kennedy White House.

Image of an Assassination—A New Look at the Zapruder Film (1998)
Zapruder's infamous footage of the Kennedy assassination is presented here in frame-by-frame detail. The DVD provides a timeline for the events of November 22nd as well as background information on the history of Zapruder's video recording.

JFK (1991)
For a semi-biographical take on Kennedy's presidency and assassination, Oliver Stone's 1991 three-hour film is surprisingly engaging, disturbing, and thought provoking.

JFK—A Presidency Revealed (2003)
The History Channel's well-received documentary examines all aspects of John F. Kennedy: his personal life, his political struggles, his health, and his tragic death. With interviews from government officials and historians alike, this is a documentary tailor-made for JFK fanatics.

Thirteen Days (2000)
If you'd like to revisit the Cuban Missile Crisis as a political thriller starring Kevin Costner, rent this. Though the director takes some creative license with the plot, the film stays mostly true to actual events.

Websites

John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
The John F. Kennedy Library is a terrific resource for primary and secondary material on Jack's life and presidency. The site contains a wealth of transcripts, audio files, and photos as well as biographies of Kennedy family members, timelines, and descriptions of important events in Jack's career.

PBS American Experience—The Kennedys
For information on the history of the Kennedy clan—from Honey Fitz to Teddy—this site features historical commentary, transcripts from seminal speeches, family background, photos, and suggested reading. The site is a companion to the documentary, The Kennedys, which aired on PBS.

American President: John Fitzgerald Kennedy
An online archive of John F. Kennedy material, this site—created by the University of Virginia—maintains a collection of speeches, biographies, and transcripts from White House recordings.

National Security Archive—The Cuban Missile Crisis
Boasting a comprehensive array of declassified documents, this site offers an insider's look into the Cuban Missile Crisis and the decision-making process in the White House. With audio files of intelligence briefings and an in-depth chronology, this George Washington University-powered site is an engaging resource for those interested in the near-Armageddon of October, 1962.

Video & Audio

John F. Kennedy's Speeches
Collection of audio and video recordings of John F. Kennedy's speeches.

American Presidency Project: John F. Kennedy
Audio and video files for some of Kennedy's most important speeches and appearances.

Zapruder Film of John F. Kennedy's Assassination
Queasy viewers beware. This footage records John F. Kennedy's murder—and Jackie Kennedy's terrified reaction—on November 22nd, 1963.

Dallas Coverage of John F. Kennedy's Assassination
Footage of live television coverage in Dallas; includes a short interview with Abraham Zapruder, a witness who unwittingly videotaped the assassination.

Primary Sources

John F. Kennedy Historical Archives
Searchable collection of presidential transcripts and correspondence.

Speeches of John F. Kennedy
Complete transcripts of John F. Kennedy's political speeches from 1946 to 1963. For major speeches, the site offers links to downloadable audio files.

Press Conferences of John F. Kennedy
Transcripts from all of Kennedy's White House news conferences.