Editors Note: We're blogging through We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel.
George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt. John F. Kennedy. If asked, most people will list these presidents among the “Best ever”. What is possibly most amazing about Kennedy’s listing is the fact that he was only in office for three years.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, the grandson of a politician. He was one of nine Kennedy children - and what these kids did was incredible. Brothers Robert and Ted became very influential politicians, and sister Eunice created the Special Olympics. The Kennedys grew up in a very competitive family. Even though John’s father insisted on good grades, John started out as a bad student. During his teen years, John started catching every possible bug - severe colds, the flu, and scarlet fever being just a few of the things he caught. He came close to death multiple times, and had to miss months of school to recover.
Somehow, John was accepted to Harvard. While he excelled in the courses he enjoyed, he payed no attention to the ones he didn’t like and ended up as an average student. Finally, as a senior, John buckled down and started studying hard. He wrote a thesis on why Britain was unprepared to fight Germany in World War II - a thesis that became extremely popular and was turned into the book Why England Slept.
After graduation, John entered the Navy. He quickly became the commander of a torpedo boat. While on patrol on August 2, 1943, John’s boat was hit by a Japanese ship. Two sailors died, and John’s back was severely injured. Ignoring his injuries, he led the survivors to an island nearby - dragging one wounded solider by a strap on his life jacket - and the crew was rescued six days later. John was awarded three metals for his actions.
During the war, however, John’s older brother Joseph’s plane exploded, killing the oldest Kennedy child. Joseph had aspired to be a politician. John took over the dream, and was elected to the House of Representatives at age 29. He quickly became annoyed with the rules and regulations, although he stuck it out for three terms. He ran for a seat in Congress and won, replacing a Republican. While in the Senate, he got married to Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12, 1953. He also wrote the book Profiles in Courage during this time, winning the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for a biography.
Finally, in 1960, John had had enough of the restrictions in Congress. He decided to run for President. With Lyndon B. Johnson at his side, Kennedy out-campaigned, out-debated, and out-lasted opponent Richard Nixon. John was elected President on November 8, 1960. During his inauguration speech, Kennedy gave one of the most iconic presidential lines in American history: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
President Kennedy quickly proved himself to be an excellent diplomat. Although his attack on the Bay of Pigs failed miserably, he more than made up for it in Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. Kennedy was able to get the USSR to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for removing missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade Cuba. The next June, he negotiated a nuclear testing ban with Great Britain and the USSR.
While his skill in foreign affairs was apparent, Kennedy missed the chance to become the leading civil rights president in history. Early in his presidency, Kennedy all but ignored the issues. However, he eventually sent his brother Robert to help escort James Meredith to the University of Mississippi, and, in 1963, finally sent the Civil Rights Act to Congress.
Most people associate Kennedy with the Space Race. While he definitely started the push to the moon, Kennedy’s contributions weren’t nearly as large as most people think. He gave the classic speech on May 25, 1961, challenging America to send men to the moon and return them by 1970. While Kennedy was in office, John Glenn orbited Earth, becoming the first American to do so, and three others followed suit, but nothing else monumental happened until after Kennedy’s assassination.
With his presidential term nearing an end in 1963, Kennedy began campaigning to be re-elected. One of his stops - and his final stop - was Dallas, Texas. What happened there has become the primary target for conspiracy theories across the globe. While the procession was driving in downtown Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald pulled out a gun and fired. He hit the president twice, killing John F. Kennedy. Oswald himself was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, further fueling speculation of Soviet or mob connections to the two killers.
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