Study Guide

John F. Kennedy Biography

  • Childhood, Illness & Harvard

    John Fitzgerald Kennedy—or "Jack," as friends and family knew him—was born on 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, a quiet, affluent, tree-lined suburb of Boston. His parents, preoccupied with social status and legitimizing their place in Boston's high society, made a concerted effort to provide Jack and his siblings with the finest opportunities available. By all accounts, the Kennedy children enjoyed a privileged lifestyle that including sailing, summer homes on the coast, lavish meals, and upper-crust boarding schools. As a young man, Jack rarely carried cash, knowing that the family's accountant would settle all debts and balances privately.blank">Why England Slept. Thus Jack, the often-sick, often-average son, began to carve out his own identity as a scholar, author, and future politician.

  • Kennedy Clan

    John F. Kennedy's political career began long before he was elected president. In fact, one could argue that his journey to the White House actually began long before he was even born, in the halls of Boston's State Building in 1892, when his maternal grandfather, John Fitzgerald, first took office as a Massachusetts state senator. Fitzgerald, the son of Irish immigrants, proved early in his career to be a natural politician and was nicknamed "Honey Fitz" for his geniality, charm, and manipulative skills. A popular verse from the 1890s went: "Honey Fitz can talk you blind / on any subject you can find / Fish and fishing, motorboats / Railroads, streetcars, getting votes."blank">Gloria Swanson in 1920 almost destroyed his marriage—he was also an unrelentingly smart political strategist who pushed his sons toward public office.

  • PT 109 & WWII

    After graduating from Harvard in 1940, Jack spent the fall at Stanford, doing some graduate work and basking in the California sun. In early 1941, as American entry into World War II loomed on the horizon, Jack was drafted into the military, but failed the physical tests necessary for admission to the navy and army as a result of his poor health and frail physique. Disappointed with his failure and eager to join his older brother, Joe Jr., who was already training to be a Navy pilot, Jack spent the spring and summer months rigorously training his body (think Rocky, but without the raw eggs). Unfortunately for Jack, his workout regimen didn't quite cut it—he was still deemed physically ineligible for military service. Most people would have probably stopped trying at that point, but Jack had one last trick left up his sleeve: Joe Sr. After contacting some of his father's friends in the military, Jack suddenly "passed" his medical exam and entered the Navy in October of 1941. Initially, Kennedy was assigned to desk jobs in Washington, D.C. and Charleston, South Carolina. Jack, however, was anxious to get a chance to really take part in the war. In 1942, he was transferred to a Patrol Torpedo boat training program, where he stood out among the other trainees for his commitment and leadership.

    On 24 April 1943, Jack was asked to take command of an actual Patrol Boat (PT 109) near the Solomon Islands. Life in the South Pacific was smooth sailing until 2 August 1943, when a Japanese destroyer struck PT 109, killing two of Jack's men and severely injuring nearly everyone else on the crew. Though Kennedy sustained major back injuries in the collision, he conducted himself with courage, poise, and stoicism. After instructing his crew to abandon ship, Jack noticed that one of his men was barely conscious and clearly unable to swim. Despite his own excruciating back pain, Jack took the strap of the man's life jacket, held it between his teeth, and swam to shore, pulling his comrade the whole way.blank">Purple Heart and Navy Medal. In August of 1944, one year after the PT 109 incident, the Kennedy family suffered another tragedy of war: the death of Joe Jr., who was killed when his plane, carrying over two tons of dynamite, suddenly exploded. Now that Joe Jr. was gone, Jack found himself next in line for the political career that Joe Sr. had always envisioned for his eldest son.

  • Congressman

    Upon his return to the United States, Jack was hailed as something of a war hero (in fact, Jack's bravery in the South Pacific was later immortalized in the 1963 film PT 109). After a brief stint in journalism, Kennedy shifted his attention toward politics, though he felt ambivalent about running for public office. With some heavy persuasion from his father, Jack ultimately decided to run for Congress in Massachusetts' 11th district. His slogan: "The New Generation Offers a Leader." In order to win over working-class voters, Jack campaigned vigorously, meeting with local organizations, emphasizing his military service, and appearing with his grandfather, Honey Fitz, who had represented the same congressional district forty years earlier. Joe Sr. spent upwards of $250,000 on the campaign (which today would be worth something like $2 million), hiring a public relations firm to manage Jack's image and bombard voters with pro-Kennedy billboards and mailings.blank" rel="nofollow">President Eisenhower in the 1956 election; it was probably a good thing for Kennedy not to be associated with his defeat. Moreover, Jack's bid for VP granted him greater visibility within both the Democratic Party and the nation at large. After the convention, "John F. Kennedy" was a name on many people's lips.

  • Jackie Kennedy

    During JFK's time in Congress, he experienced some important personal setbacks as well as successes: he was diagnosed with Addison's disease, he married Jacqueline Bouvier, and he underwent extremely risky back surgery. Each of these events impacted his career in different, but profound, ways. Let's find out how.

    In 1947, Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's disease, a potentially fatal disorder in which the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol (a hormone essential for stress response). Symptoms include fatigue, muscle weakness, nausea, and bronzing of the skin (if you wondered how a New England congressman could always look so tan, now you know the reason). In order to manage his chronic disease, Jack was subjected to a strict, daily regimen of shots and pills. However, his medication was not always effective: on a 1947 ocean journey from Britain to the U.S., Jack became so sick that a priest was called to give him his last ritesblank">Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1957. Jack could now add award-winning author to his list of achievements.

  • Presidential Campaign

    Following JFK's failed attempt to win the vice presidential nomination in 1956, his political ambitions only heightened; during his next three years in the Senate, Jack spoke frequently with his family and advisers about a potential bid for the presidency in 1960. Thus it was hardly surprising when Jack formally announced his candidacy on 2 January 1960. Though Jack, Bobby, and Joe Sr. strongly believed that Jack could win, he was initially considered a long shot in a crowded field of Democratic competitors that included Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Of particular concern was Jack's Catholicism. Time and again, Jack was told that America was a Protestant country unwilling to elect a Catholic to the highest office in the land. Though he was occasionally discouraged by those remarks, Kennedy campaigned with confidence, winning over voters across the country with his charm and easy nature.

    Bobby reprised his role as Jack's campaign manager, running a primary campaign that focused on Jack's role as a congressman, war hero, accomplished author, and loving father (Jack's daughter, Caroline, had been born in 1957). At the Democratic Convention, as a result of his unrelenting campaigning in states like Wisconsin and West Virginia, JFK was successful in securing the nomination. He selected Lyndon B. Johnson, an experienced Southern Democrat and the Senate Majority Leader, as his vice presidential running mate. In his acceptance speech on 15 July, Kennedy delivered a message that would set the tone for the remainder of his presidential campaign: "We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats."

  • Biography

    Examining the life of John F. Kennedy without first understanding his family background would be a little like trying to read a book but starting in the middle—you'd be missing half the story. The Kennedy clan, known for its good looks, riches, Irish Catholic roots, and an almost pathological tendency to womanize (check out Joe Sr., Teddy, and Jack for more on that subject), has held a coveted spot in the American consciousness for nearly fifty years. If the United States had a royal family, it would surely be the Kennedys. Together, John F. Kennedy and his siblings—all nine of them—managed to serve as one U.S. President, two Massachusetts senators, a New York senator, a Massachusetts congressman, a U.S. Attorney General, the founder of the Special Olympics, and a U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. Had the lives of the two most promising Kennedy children—Jack and Bobby—not been cut short through assassination, the siblings' list of political achievements would undoubtedly be even longer. The Kennedys are a family with a predilection for politics, public service, and philanthropy, having donated both time and money to social service foundations, educational institutions, and civil rights campaigns.

    But let's forget all that for a second. Another big reason we find the Kennedys so intriguing is that that the stories of their lives rival even the best soap operas. Days of Our Lives is kid's stuff compared to the real-life drama of John F. Kennedy and his family. From the contentious 1960 presidential election to JFK's dalliance with Marilyn Monroe to Jack and Bobby's tragic deaths to Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident,the history of the family has been a mixed bag of glamour, success, corruption, hope, and (oftentimes) overindulgence. After John F. Kennedy's death, his presidency was dubbed "Camelot," a reference to the regal and romantic backdrop of the King Arthur tales. In the eyes of many, JFK and his family came to symbolize a sort of American Camelot, one filled with young, beautiful, intelligent, and near-mythic individuals. But as we will see, that's not the whole story.

  • Bay of Pigs

    In the spring of 1960, almost a year before Jack was sworn into office, President Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to secretly train anticommunist Cuban exiles to launch an invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro's government in Cuba. A mere two days after his inauguration, JFK was briefed on the plan. The CIA was anxious to take swift action in Cuba, fearing the rise of a dangerous communist regime only ninety miles from American soil, and urged Jack to authorize an invasion. Kennedy was ambivalent: while a successful invasion would topple Castro's anti-American government, a failed mission could be disastrous for Kennedy's image, both at home and abroad. After the CIA assured Jack that the "invasion force could be expected to achieve success," and that the United States would be only minimally implicated in the operation, Jack authorized the plans to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.blank">Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's orbit of the earth in 1961, Kennedy felt great pressure to compete with the Russians in exploring space, the final frontier. He believed that a successful space program—most importantly, a program that would allow the United States to become the first country to put a man on the moon—would increase America's power and prestige in the world (he was right, by the way).

  • Cuban Missile Crisis

    On 16 October 1962, the course of Jack Kennedy's presidency changed forever. At 8:45 in the morning, he was shown a series of photographs documenting the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in western Cuba. Although JFK was unsure of Khrushchev's intent ("What is the advantage?" Kennedy asked of his advisers)blank">Averill Harriman, to negotiate the terms of the treaty with Soviet officials in Moscow. On 25 July, two rival superpowers reached an agreement to ban the testing of nuclear bombs in air, space, and water—but not underground. For this reason, the treaty is referred to as the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The next day, Kennedy went on television to inform Americans about the proposed treaty and garner support for the agreement, which was ultimately signed in Moscow in August. It was a watershed moment for Soviet-American relations.

  • Civil Rights

    At the same time as Jack struggled to handle Soviet influence abroad, a revolution of epic proportions was taking place in his very own country: the civil rights movement. Throughout JFK's presidency, civil rights advocates struggled to effect change in the racially segregated South, where whites controlled state governments and denied African-Americans basic rights. Although Kennedy opposed segregation and had shown some support for the civil rights movement (most notably through a 1960 phone call to Coretta Scott King), he did not make civil rights a major priority of his presidency until his last months as commander-in-chief. JFK, who had had few personal interactions with blacks in his life, was reluctant to address civil rights concerns for fear of exposing American racism to the international community, alienating southern voters in his quest for re-election, and straining relations with southern Democrats in Congress (and thus making it harder to pass legislation). The president, who had developed a passion for international relations early in his career, wanted to focus on what he saw as more pressing foreign policy issues relating to Russia, Cuba, and the Cold War.

    However, civil rights concerns could not be ignored. Kennedy first experienced the challenges of leading a socially turbulent nation in May of 1961, when a group of black and white civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders boarded buses and attempted to break segregation codes by traveling together through violently racist regions of the South. When the Freedom Riders reached Montgomery, Alabama, they were attacked by a white mob; after fleeing to the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, the mob followed, threatening to storm the building. At this point, President Kennedy, following the advice of his brother Bobby, now serving as Attorney General, ordered a group of U.S. Marshals to protect the Freedom Riders. But Kennedy was unwilling to take any other federal action, immediately handing over power to Alabama Governor John Patterson. Following the incident, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked the president if he would agree to meet the Freedom Riders in Washington as a symbol of solidarity. Jack refused the request.

    President Kennedy demonstrated a similar reluctance to undertake major civil rights action during a 1962 conflict at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi). On 25 September, James Meredith, an African American man, attempted to register as a student at Ole Miss, the only remaining all-white public university in the nation. Mississippi's notoriously racist governor, Ross Barnett, blocked Meredith's efforts, and tensions in the college town of Oxford, Mississippi grew explosive. Seeking to avoid the kind of bad publicity that had resulted from President Eisenhower's decision to send federal troops to integrate a Little Rock high school in 1957, Kennedy wanted to exercise as little presidential power as possible. Jack and Bobby tried to engineer a behind-the-scenes negotiation with Governor Barnett, but were unable to reach any solid agreement. In a televised address on the evening of 30 September, Jack assured the nation that James Meredith was safely living on the Ole Miss campus; almost simultaneously, violence was erupting in Oxford. Jack was forced to call in the National Guard, something he had longed to avoid. At four in the morning, as the rioting in Mississippi intensified, Jack ordered 16,000 military policemen to restore peace on the Ole Miss campus. The military policemen were ultimately successful in their efforts, but not before the rioters had wreaked considerable havoc: two people were killed, over 200 federal marshals and soldiers were injured, and 200 people were arrested.blank" rel="nofollow">Civil Rights Movement.

  • Assassination

    On 21 November 1963, Jack and Jackie Kennedy flew to Texas for a five-day tour of the Lone Star State. JFK was looking to garner support for his upcoming re-election campaign and believed that a strong win in Texas would be essential for victory. On 22 November, the second day of the Kennedys' visit, the presidential couple planned to make an appearance at the Trade Mart in Dallas. As Jack and Jackie rode through the streets of Dallas in an open limousine, waving to the masses that had gathered to catch a glimpse of the first couple, the sound of gunfire suddenly rang out. Sitting next to his wife, the president had been shot twice: once in the neck and once in the back of the head. John F. Kennedy was killed almost instantly.

    Following the announcement of Jack's assassination, the nation was overwhelmed by a sense of despair and hopelessness. Americans young and old asked themselves how such a tragedy could have taken place, how a president who had come to symbolize a new era in American politics could have been so abruptly killed. Later that evening, Dallas police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, a troubled 24-year-old man with connections to communist groups and organized crime, for the murder of John F. Kennedy (he was also suspected of murdering a police officer the same day). In an unexpected, dramatic twist of events, Lee Harvey Oswald was himself shot and killed only two days later by Jack Ruby, a strip club owner with mafia connections. As Ruby fired the fatal bullet, he shouted, "You killed my president, you rat!" Though historians have speculated about the rationale behind Oswald's actions for more than forty-five years, no one has reached a convincing conclusion. A wealth of conspiracy theories—CIA involvement, mafia retaliation, multiple gunmen, even Lyndon B. Johnson as the mastermind—have been put forward, but there is little evidence to fully support any of them.

    In many ways, John F. Kennedy's assassination solidified his status as an American icon. Though Jack enjoyed prominence and celebrity throughout his political career, his sudden death made him into something of a martyr. In his eulogy for the fallen president, Senator Jacob Javits eloquently described JFK's impact on the American people: "Not until the vacuum of disbelief was filled with the horror of comprehension did any of us realize how much we identified ourselves…with the president—this intellectual, vigorous young man expressing the very essence of the youthfulness of our nation." Although Kennedy was by no means a perfect person, husband, or president, his shortcomings have been overshadowed by the memory of his youthfulness, his charisma, and his vision for a new America. For millions of Americans, John F. Kennedy was truly the king of Camelot.

    • Family

      Father: Joseph Kennedy, Sr., 1888-1969, Chairman of SEC, U.S. Ambassador to England
      Mother: Rose Kennedy, 1890-1995
      Brother: Joseph Kennedy, Jr., 1915-1944, Navy pilot killed in World War II
      Sister: Rosemary Kennedy, 1918-2005
      Sister: Kathleen Kennedy, 1920-1948, killed in a plane crash
      Sister: Eunice Kennedy, 1921-2009, founder of Special Olympics
      Sister: Patricia Kennedy, 1924-2006
      Brother: Robert Kennedy, 1925-1968, U.S. Attorney General
      Sister: Jean Kennedy, 1928-Present
      Brother: Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009, U.S. Senator—Massachusetts

      Wife: Jacqueline Bouvier, 1929-1994 (married 1953)
      Daughter: Caroline Kennedy, 1957-Present, attorney, mother of three children
      Son: John F. Kennedy, Jr., 1960-1999, attorney and founder of George magazine; killed in plane crash
      Son: Patrick Kennedy, 1963, died in infancy

    • Education

      High School Diploma, Choate, Wallingford, Conn. (1936)
      Bachelor's Degree in International Affairs, Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass. (1940)

    • Work Experience

      Ensign, United States Navy, 1941
      Lieutenant, United States Navy, 1942-1945
      Journalist, Chicago-Herald American, 1945
      United States Congressman, Massachusetts, 11th District, 1947-1953
      United States Senator, Massachusetts, 1953-1961
      United States President, 1961-1963

    • Major Works

      Why England Slept, 1940
      Profiles in Courage, 1956

    • Awards

      Navy and Marine Corps Medal, 1944
      Purple Heart Medal, 1944
      Pulitzer Prize in Biography, 1957