Against the backdrop of fear and apprehension over the spread of communism, John F. Kennedy's administration was constantly preoccupied with how to maintain U.S. power and avoid the catastrophic consequences that would follow from nuclear conflict. In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and key leaders in his administration were working on an international treaty during the summer of 1963 that would ban nuclear weapons testing. While he faced opposition and criticism that he was appeasing the communists, Kennedy continued to push forward the treaty.
At the same time that Kennedy was determined to find ways of establishing international cooperation over nuclear issues, his administration was faced with a decision regarding the unstable political situation in South Vietnam. President Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of the Republic of South Vietnam, had been a controversial figure from the time he took office in 1955. A devout Catholic, he waged brutal crackdowns against the Buddhist population in South Vietnam that grew even more intense by the late summer and fall of 1963. As opposition groups led by military generals drew up plans to overthrow Diem, the U.S. debated whether to stick with Diem, who had been an anti-communist ally. Throughout his last months in office, this quandary played heavily on the mind of the president.
While international issues worried Kennedy, the scene inside the U.S. was also heated, particularly around the issue of civil rights. Years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mobilized protests over segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, and after school desegregation challenges in Little Rock, Arkansas, galvanized the civil rights movement, racial injustice continued in America. Civil rights leaders were pressuring the administration to pass federal legislation and enact other measures that would help ensure freedom and equality for African Americans.
With both domestic and international pressures mounting, Kennedy continued to be an enormously popular president. With two young children in the White House, the well-dressed and well-spoken president, along with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, were watched by the world, embodying a sense of youth, hope and promise. Yet behind this exterior, Kennedy’s personal life was consistently challenged by hardship.
On August 7, 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave birth to a son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. Delivered by caesarian section five-and-a-half weeks before Jackie’s due date, Patrick was born with hyaline membrane disease, a lung condition that at the time was fatal for half of babies born with the condition. Despite receiving outstanding medical care, Patrick died two days after his birth. Both the president and the first lady were wracked with grief. Jackie Kennedy had been plagued with difficult pregnancies, including a stillborn daughter in 1956 that they had intended to name Arabella. The drama of Patrick’s short life dominated headlines during those two days in early August, and his death cast clouds over the first family’s personal life.
Just weeks after Patrick’s death, one of the high water marks of the civil rights movement took place in Washington, D.C.: On August 28th, more than 250,000 people gathered around the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Though Kennedy and his brother Attorney General Bobby Kennedy were first very concerned about the march and the chaos that could ensue, he agreed to meet with civil rights leaders at the White House immediately following the official program. Kennedy had watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his renowned “I Have a Dream Speech” on television and was pleased with the peaceful conclusion of the march.
Just a few months before, on June 11, Kennedy had delivered what many believe to be one of his most powerful speeches and a major milestone in civil rights history. After Alabama Governor George Wallace vigorously opposed the enrollment of two African-American students at the University of Alabama, Kennedy delivered an address from the Oval Office calling for national legislation to address the “moral crisis” of racial inequality. That legislation would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed in July 1964, about eight months after Kennedy’s assassination.
Despite the positive momentum from the march, Kennedy knew that he still would encounter an uphill battle getting civil rights legislation passed given the vehement opposition in Congress. Violence against African Americans fighting for civil rights also continued to mount. Shockwaves reverberated throughout the nation when white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, killing four young girls. The church had been an organizing center for the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. The horror of the bombing, in retrospect, helped catalyze support for civil rights legislation.
By early October, Kennedy was on the heels one of his greatest triumphs, the successful negotiation of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (also known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty) between Great Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Signed by Kennedy on October 7, the treaty was a major achievement for the administration. A few weeks before, on September 20, he addressed the United Nations, outlining paths toward world peace including the Test Ban Treaty. The treaty limited nuclear weapons testing, addressing concerns about the radioactive fallout of nuclear tests, and also indicating that international cooperation around nuclear issues was possible. Though the Cold War was hardly over, the treaty showed how far the world had come since the year before, when the Cuban Missile Crisis sent fear of nuclear war into the hearts of Americans and people around the world.
Even as some aspects of the Cold War seemed to be improving, the situation in Vietnam was deteriorating. With resistance to Diem’s regime snowballing, Kennedy’s advisors including Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the ambassador to South Vietnam, reported that Diem’s government was corrupt and unpopular, and that the U.S. should either exert extreme pressure on him to step aside or allow a coup planned by generals in the South Vietnamese forces. Failing to act seemed more and more implausible. On November 1, after negotiations with the dissident generals, Diem agreed to step down; soon after, Diem and his brother were brutally killed by opposition leaders. Though the U.S. remained neutral on the surface, behind the scenes the government was actively in touch with the generals who overthrew Diem. While some U.S. leaders felt that the end of Diem’s leadership meant that stability would return to South Vietnam, in actuality the situation in Vietnam only became more complicated over time.
In addition to civil rights and the crisis in Vietnam, Kennedy’s last 100 days in office were focused on other areas of concern from tax policy to immigration, and his administration had big plans for the year ahead. He also spent time at the White House with his children, resulting in some of the most iconic footage of the family’s time in the White House. Despite the challenges he faced and the pressures of national and international politics at the time, no one was prepared for his story to abruptly and violently end on November 22, 1963.