John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Irish American politician who serves as the 35th president of the United States, is born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917. He serves from 1961 until his assassination in 1963 during the height of the Cold War, with the majority of his work as president concerning relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Kennedy is born into the wealthy, political Kennedy family, the son of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., a businessman and politician, and Rose Kennedy (née Fitzgerald), a philanthropist and socialite. All four of his grandparents are children of Irish immigrants. He graduates from Harvard University in 1940, before joining the United States Naval Reserve the following year. During World War II, he commands a series of PT boats in the Pacific theater and earns the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his service.
Following a brief stint in journalism, Kennedy, a Democrat, represents a working-class Boston district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953. He is subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate and serves as the junior senator for Massachusetts from 1953 to 1960. While in the Senate, Kennedy publishes his book, Profiles in Courage, which wins a Pulitzer Prize.
Kennedy meets his future wife, Jacqueline Lee “Jackie” Bouvier (1929–1994), while he is a congressman. Charles L. Bartlett, a journalist, introduces the pair at a dinner party. They are married a year after he is elected senator, on September 12, 1953. Following a miscarriage in 1955 and a stillbirth in 1956, they produce three children, Caroline, John, Jr., and Patrick, who dies of complications two days after birth.
In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy narrowly defeats Republican opponent Richard Nixon, who is the incumbent vice president. His humor, charm, and youth in addition to his father’s money and contacts are great assets in the campaign. His campaign gains momentum after the first televised presidential debates in American history. He is the first Catholic elected president of the United States.
Kennedy’s administration includes high tensions with communist states in the Cold War. As a result, he increases the number of American military advisors in South Vietnam. The Strategic Hamlet Program begins in Vietnam during his presidency. In April 1961, he authorizes an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. He authorizes the Cuban Project, also known as Operation Mongoose, in November 1961. He rejects Operation Northwoods, plans for false flag attacks to gain approval for a war against Cuba, in March 1962. However, his administration continues to plan for an invasion of Cuba in the summer of 1962.
In October 1962, U.S. spy planes discover Soviet missile bases have been deployed in Cuba. The resulting period of tensions, termed the Cuban Missile Crisis, nearly results in the breakout of a global thermonuclear conflict. He also signs the first nuclear weapons treaty in October 1963.
Kennedy presides over the establishment of the Peace Corps, Alliance for Progress with Latin America, and the continuation of the Apollo space program with the goal of landing a man on the Moon. He also supports the civil rights movement, but is only somewhat successful in passing his New Frontier domestic policies.
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumes the presidency upon Kennedy’s death. Marxist and former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested for the state crime, but is shot and killed by Jack Ruby two days later. The FBI and the Warren Commission both conclude Oswald had acted alone in the assassination, but various groups contest the Warren Report and believe that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy.
After Kennedy’s death, Congress enacts many of his proposals, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Revenue Act of 1964. Despite his truncated presidency, he ranks highly in polls of U.S. presidents with historians and the general public. His personal life has also been the focus of considerable sustained interest following public revelations in the 1970s of his chronic health ailments and extramarital affairs. He is the last U.S. President to have been assassinated as well as the last U.S. president to die in office.
(Pictured: John F. Kennedy, photograph in the Oval Office, July 11, 1963)