The nation watched and mourned when the president of the United States, the youngest ever, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery Nov. 25, 1963, his term in office cut short by an assassin’s bullet.
John F. Kennedy, born May 29, 1917, served just two years, 10 months and two days as president, yet his grave remains among the most visited locations at Arlington. Two children who died in their infancy are interred beside him, as is his widowed first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Robert F. Kennedy, to whom the family’s political torch had passed, is buried nearby, also the victim of an assassin, killed in 1968 while seeking the high office of president.
John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was born in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Mass., to Joseph Patrick Kennedy and his wife, Rose, their second child. In all, there came to be nine brothers and sisters.
In 1927, the family moved to New York, but maintained a family home in Hyannis, Cape Cod, where they summered. Kennedy was educated in private schools, graduating from Choate School in Connecticut in 1935 and Harvard University in 1940. Strongly interested in history and politics, Kennedy authored Why England Slept, a best-selling examination of decisions that led to World War II. At the time, Kennedy’s father was the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, which was locked in war against Nazi Germany.
When the United States was drawn into the war, Kennedy enlisted in the Navy as did his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Jack became commander of a PT boat and fought in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese. Joe became a Navy flyer and, after getting his wings, flew missions in the Caribbean. Kennedy’s boat, PT-109, was rammed the night of Aug. 1 and 2, 1943, by an enemy destroyer. Lt. Kennedy managed to lead 10 of the crew to a nearby island where they were rescued a week later.
A month later, Joe Kennedy became part of the first U.S. Navy squadron to fly B-24s with the British Naval Command. After many missions, extending his term of service twice, the elder brother died Aug. 12, 1944, on a secret mission to attack a V-2 Rocket position in Normandy by crashing a pilotless drone loaded with high explosives into it. The drone exploded before its pilots could transfer radio control to a mother aircraft and bail out.
Back from the war, John Kennedy accepted the political aspirations that the family had vested in Joe. He won election to the House of Representatives from a Boston district in 1946 and was reelected twice before, advancing in 1953 to the Senate. That year he married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, a photojournalist who had taken his picture while on assignment. Kennedy was stricken with a back ailment in 1954 and underwent an operation that immobilized him during recuperation. During recuperation he wrote an account of several senators who risked their careers to do what they believed was right. Profiles in Courage won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957.
Kennedy’s foray into national politics began about the same time. In 1956 he placed Adlai Stevenson’s name in nomination as the Democratic candidate for president and was nearly chosen Stevenson’s running mate. He campaigned actively for the chance to represent the Democratic Party in 1960, succeeding there and in the general election against belief in some quarters that a Catholic could not win. With Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, as running mate, Kennedy won narrowly over Richard M. Nixon, the sitting vice president. Both Johnson and Nixon would later achieve the White House as well.
Shortly after the election, the Kennedy had a son, John Jr., to join 3-year-old Caroline in the presidential family.
The Kennedy Administration saw the beginning of a number of initiatives that bore the mark of the young president. Among these were a call to public service, epitomized by the call he made in his inaugural address to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Thousands of Americans volunteered to go to third-world countries abroad under the federal Peace Corps program administered by Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver and help underdeveloped communities to help themselves. Another was a call to plant the American flag in space by landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The Kennedy Administration faced two defining crises over Cuba. The first came months into Kennedy’s presidency, a bungled invasion by Cuban expatriates who wanted to overthrow the communist regime instituted by Fidel Castro after the guerilla revolution he led succeeded in capturing power. The Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 was backed by the Central Intelligence Agency, which had earlier backed an effort that toppled the government of Guatemala. The second crisis came in October 1962 when preparations to place Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba were detected by American spy planes. Kennedy demanded removal of the missiles and placed a naval blockade on Cuba to enforce his will. Over a tense 13 days, the world teetered on the brink of war between the nuclear super powers before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordered the missiles withdrawn.
The Cold War marked other aspects of the Kennedy presidency. The summer of 1963 saw the building of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall caused the president to visit the city and declare his support for maintaining a democratic presence in the former German capital, despite its location in communist East Germany. “I am a Berliner,” he told the city in German: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He sought and achieved greater military spending while at the same time sought to limit the arms race by proposing a ban on aboveground nuclear tests.
Kennedy approached the military with the aim of making it stronger and more flexible, able to engage in limited warfare and possessing a capability for limited warfare while at the same time closing what he had described as a “missile gap” in the strategic arena. His secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, shaped this new force using the latest business models. America would, he had declared entering office, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Later reiterating the American commitment to maintain an independent South Vietnam, Kennedy backed the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, who had come to office in 1955 at American insistence, and fielded military advisers to the South Vietnamese Army, eventually as many as 16,000. Excesses of the Diem government, which was strongly pro-Catholic in addition to being corrupt, brought opposition from among the Buddhist majority and the United States gave assent when a group of Vietnamese generals proposed a coup to replace Diem. Diem was assassinated the same month as Kennedy. Kennedy had himself gone along with the coup, but later voiced second thoughts on the wisdom of the U.S. actions. Another area in which the Kennedy Administration was active was in the area of civil rights, although it was left to Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to usher a broad civil rights act through Congress. It was left to Johnson to obtain passage for many of the elements in Kennedy’s “New Frontier” legislative program. Kennedy called attention to many of the issues: medical care for the disabled and elderly, increased funding for the arts, concern for the environment, and a “war on poverty.” Under Johnson, the initiatives became known as “The Great Society” initiative and were passed into law in substantial measure.
In Dallas, Texas, to deliver a speech on American economic and military strength to the Dallas Citizens Council, Kennedy was shot and killed Nov. 22, 1963, riding with his wife in an open limousine as his motorcade passed the Texas School Book depository. As word of the shooting and later the death of their president reached the American people, the nation was in shock. The accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself killed when a Dallas nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, stepped from a crowd and shot Oswald at point-blank range. Reports that Kennedy would be buried near his home in Brookline, Mass., at Holyhood Cemetery, were corrected when the bereaved first lady declared the president “belonged to the people” and should be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.