One of America’s best-loved presidents, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is born into a politically and socially prominent family in Brookline, Massachusetts, on this day in 1917. He was the first American president to be born in the 20th century.
In 1935, Kennedy enrolled at Harvard University and received a degree in international affairs with honors in 1940. While there, he suffered a debilitating back injury that would have life-long repercussions. After college, Kennedy served on a Navy PT boat in World War II. In 1952, he won a seat in the House of Representatives and then served in the Senate for seven years beginning in 1953. Also in 1953, he married Jacqueline Bouvier. In subsequent years, Kennedy underwent several dangerous spinal operations; it was during his recuperation from one such operation that he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning history Profiles in Courage. Unfortunately, the operations never succeeded in curing his persistent back pain and, for the rest of his life, Kennedy took a powerful combination of pain killers, muscle relaxants and sleeping pills, a fact he successfully hid from the public. The pain, however, did not prevent him from becoming a rising Democratic star in the Senate; he ran for the presidency in 1960.
Kennedy’s support for liberal economic and social policies, such as civil rights and increased funding for education and public housing, in addition to his strong anti-communist stance, appealed to a broad cross-section of Americans during the presidential campaign. In addition to his political philosophy, Kennedy capitalized on his handsome features and charismatic personality to beat Republican candidate Richard Nixon to become the nation’s 35th president. In a televised debate, the well-groomed and relaxed Kennedy had appeared more presidential than a haggard-looking, unshaven, visibly nervous Nixon. Many observers believed this debate was critical to his success.
President Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected to the office. His youth, intelligence and worldliness—along with his beautiful, stylish and much-admired wife–charmed Americans and Europeans alike. His children, Caroline and John Jr., were often photographed cavorting around the White House grounds with their pets or playing under their father’s desk in the Oval Office. Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, also young and enthusiastic, served as his attorney general and closest advisor. The American public increasingly saw the Kennedy family as a kind of American royalty and the press portrayed Kennedy’s administration as a sort of modern-day Camelot, with the president himself as King Arthur presiding over an ideal society.
As president, Kennedy combined a fervent stance against communism with a liberal domestic agenda. He was a strong proponent of civil rights as well as a Cold War hawk. He authorized covert operations to remove Fidel Castro from power and, in 1962, challenged the Soviet Union to remove nuclear missiles installed on Cuba. The resulting Cuban Missile Crisis was a frighteningly tense showdown between JFK and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that brought the two nuclear superpowers to the brink of war. JFK also sought peaceful means of fighting communism—he established the Peace Corps and funded scientific research programs to fight poverty and illness and provide aid to developing nations. By encouraging American youth to donate their time and energy to international aid, JFK hoped to provide positive democratic role models to developing nations. In a 1961 speech, Kennedy advocated for a vigorous U.S. space program and vowed to send an American to the moon by the close of the 1960s.
In 1963, Kennedy was assassinated while driving through Dallas, Texas, in a convertible. Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy in the head from the second story of a book depository. Texas Governor John Connally and Jackie Kennedy were also in the car. Connally was hit in the back, chest, wrist and thigh, but eventually made a full recovery. Jackie was uninjured.
A bystander named Abraham Zapruder happened to capture the shooting on his 8mm home-movie camera. Zapruder’s film provided graphic visuals of JFK’s death and has been endlessly analyzed for evidence of a potential conspiracy. In 1964, the federally appointed Warren Commission investigated the assassination and concluded that Oswald acted alone. Some scholars, investigators and amateur sleuths, however, still insist Kennedy’s death was a coup d’etat committed by hard-line U.S. anti-communists who feared Kennedy would pull out the U.S. advisors he had sent to Vietnam in 1962 and act soft on the communist threat from the USSR. Another conspiracy theory involves a concerted effort by organized crime, the Pentagon, and the CIA to murder the president; this view was adapted by Oliver Stone into the 1991 film JFK.
Kennedy is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where an eternal flame burns in his memory.