JFK officially declared his intent to run for President on January 2, 1960. He won his party’s nomination on July 30, 1960 and on Tuesday November 8, Kennedy defeated Nixon and won the Presidency of the United States. He was sworn in as President on January 20,1961. The most remembered part of his inaugural address is his world famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He was assassinated on November 22, 1963 – ending his short lived but world changing Presidency.
Kennedy’s presidency was very active and addressed many major issues of the day – the Cuban Missile Crisis, Latin America and the spread of Communism, the Peace Corps, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Space Program and many other issues. Here are the highlights of some of his more memorable activities while in office.
Cuba: Cuba was a very troublesome part of the Kennedy Presidency. He was embroiled in the Bay of Pigs episode and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Bay of Pigs was a plan conceived during the Eisenhower administration to invade Cuba and freed it from the Communist Fidel Castro. It was orchestrated by the CIA and organized an insurgency built up of anti-Castro Cubans. The United States help train them and on April 17, 1961, Kennedy ordered the invasion to proceed. Fifteen Hundred trained Cuban exiles – called Brigade 2506 – invaded Cuba but did so without U.S. air support, something Kennedy did not allow to occur. The plan failed and the invaders were captured or killed and Kennedy was forced to negotiate the release of the captives.
The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 14, 1962 when American U-2 spy planes took pictures of an intermediate range missile site under construction in Cuba. The photos were shown to Kennedy on October 16. Against the wishes of his military – who wished to conduct an air assault on the missile sites – Kennedy enacted a Naval embargo of Cuba and entered into negotiations with the Soviets to remove the missiles and dismantle the bases. After a very tense period for the world, Kennedy and Krushchev reached an agreement to remove the missiles in Cuba and in exchange the U.S. agreed to never invade Cuba and to remove U.S. missiles stationed in Turkey.
Vietnam: Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s lead to use limited military action to fight Communism in the Asian theater. As part of this action Kennedy took steps to help the unstable South Vietnamese government by sending 16,000 military advisers and Special Forces troops to the area. In spite of the efforts of these and an increasing number of U.S. personnel, the situation further deteriorated and by July 1963, Vietnam became a full blown crisis. The administration’s response to the crisis was to assist in a change of the leadership of South Vietnam with the overthrow of President Diem. Unfortunately, the assassination of Kennedy shortly thereafter left Vietnam a long term crisis for the United States – one that may have been resolved very differently had Kennedy been afforded the time to fully address the challenges.
Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: In August 1963, Kennedy signed a Nuclear Test Ban treaty to ban the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, on top of the ground and in the water. The ban did not apply to underground testing activities. The United States and the Soviet Union were the initial signatories to the treaty.
Immigration: Kennedy proposed a major overhaul of the American immigration policy – later known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This act shifted emphasis on immigration from European countries to Latin America and Asia. It also shifted the emphasis on selection of immigrants towards family reunifications as opposed to meeting quotas from specific countries.
Space program: Kennedy passionately believed it was the United State’s destiny to be the leader in the space race. To this end, Kennedy approached Nikita Kruschchev in June 1961 and in the autumn of 1963 proposing joint ventures in space exploration. At the first meeting, the Soviet Union was far ahead of the United States in space technology. On the second occasion, when America’s space program was moving ahead of the Soviet program, Kruschchev saw the advantages of cost-sharing but Kennedy was assassinated before an agreement could be constructed.
Kennedy first made the goal for landing a man on the Moon when speaking to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961, saying
“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Civil Rights: Kennedy’s Presidency was plagued by civil rights issues stemming from the 1954 Supreme Couort ruling that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. He felt the conditions that existed in the South were very explosive and often seemed disconnected from the civil rights movement – fearing that a fully engaged President would cause great strife with Southern whites and make it very difficult to pass meaningful civil rights laws.
However, he did intervene in many actions with use of federal marshals and troops to ensure that people’s rights were protected – the most notable being in 1962 when James Meredith tried to enroll in the University of Mississippi and on June 11,1963 when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked two African American students from entering the University of Alabama.
It was on that very evening that Kennedy fully jumped into this issue by delivering his famous civil rights address on national radio and television. The proposal made in the speech became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Kennedy’s list of accomplishments are much longer this the summary offered here. He lived in a truly turbulent and formative time for this country and was the driving force behind many of the changes that has shaped our country since his Presidency.
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