John F Kennedy

Through the Ages – John F Kennedy

Notably, one of the most influential people in the world at any one time would have to be the President of the United States. These presidents are often remembered for the good work that they do: not only for their own country but also for the world. John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the USA, was only in office for a short time before being famously assassinated, but made some major contributions to history, especially the relationship between America and the Soviet Union.

John F. Kennedy (known to many by his public nickname, JFK) was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917. One of nine children to a wealthy family, it was expected that he and his siblings would move on to become successful in their chosen fields. JFK attended Princeton and Harvard Universities and later joined the U.S. Navy. While on active duty in the Pacific in 1943, the boat he was commanding was sunk by the Japanese. JFK heroically saved his crew, but aggravated an old injury, which saw him having to give up his career in the Navy.

He went on to become a Congressman, and later a Senator although during this time he was often ill and in hospital. In 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier and they had three children, one of whom died in infancy. He also wrote a book whilst he was unwell – a book about American political heroes entitled ‘Profiles in Courage’ that later won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize. JFK became well known for his backing of social legislation benefiting the working class and also for his strong Anti-Communism stance – a stance that would prove to be the driving factor behind his actions as president. In 1960, JFK launched a high finance, well-organised bid for presidency under the Democratic Party.

John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President on January 20, 1961. In his Inaugural Address, he spoke of the need for all Americans to be active citizens. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he said. He also asked the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the “common enemies of man:” tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. After his election, one of President Kennedy’s first important actions was creating the Peace Corps. Americans who join the Peace Corps go as volunteers to countries requesting assistance.

Many of the hardest choices JFK had to make as president concerned the relationship between America and the Soviet Union, which was a communist country. This “Cold War” (called so as there had never been any physical fighting between the entities) had been going on for many years and was a reflection of the inability for countries with differing methods of government to work well together.

President Kennedy and the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev met in 1961. One topic they discussed was the German city of Berlin. After World War II, Germany had been divided into two countries and Berlin was also divided as it sat on the border of the two German countries. West Germany was a democratic country where people elected their leaders. East Germany was communist, like the Soviet Union, the government made many decisions without the approval of the people. During their meeting Kennedy and Khrushchev strongly disagreed about the future of Berlin, with JFK asserting that it should be governed by the democratic West. Later that summer the Soviets built a huge wall dividing the two parts of Berlin. For many Americans and the western Europeans, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of communism. JFK said that America would support democracy in Berlin and that he looked forward to the wall coming down one day – this event was one he would never see in his lifetime.

In October 1962 an American spy plane secretly flew over Cuba and took photos of several military construction sites. The photos showed that the Soviets were building nuclear missile launchers in Cuba. Cuba’s communist government, led by Fidel Castro, was very friendly with the Soviet Union. President Kennedy faced a very difficult decision. Should he ignore the missiles even though they were very close to the United States? Should he use force to remove the missiles–even at the risk of starting a nuclear war?

After many long and difficult meetings, he decided to place a naval blockade around Cuba to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. Several days later, Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, agreed to remove the missiles and bring them back to the Soviet Union. In exchange, the United States promised not to invade Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis had nearly caused a nuclear war. Many people around the world were impressed with John Kennedy’s leadership during these tense thirteen days In August 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty that outlawed nuclear bomb tests in the air, under water, and in outer space. The treaty did not prevent the two countries from building more weapons, but it did protect the world from the harmful effects of nuclear tests – a major contribution to the world by the 35th U.S. President.

Not long after, JFK was thinking ahead to the presidential campaign of 1964. In November 1963, JFK travelled to a Democratic Party meeting in Texas. While driving in a motorcade through Dallas on November 22, he was shot in the head and died within an hour. President Johnson, JFK’s successor, appointed the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination. It concluded that the killer, acting alone, was 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald. No motive was ever established.

In one of JFK’s last addresses to the nation, he reminded America of the good work that had been done in building a better relationship with the Soviet Union, and asked that this good work be continued and for the American people to think more about making peace with the Soviet Union. “We all inhabit this small planet,” he said. “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.”

Another Through the Ages article coming soon…