John F. Kennedy

35th president of the United States

EARLY LIFE

John F. Kennedy, the second oldest of nine children, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917. His father hoped that one of his children would one day become president. As a child, Kennedy had many childhood illnesses and once almost died from scarlet fever. But he grew up to be athletic and competitive, playing football for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He injured his spine in college and never fully recovered from the injury.

War Hero

In 1943, a Japanese warship destroyed a boat Kennedy commanded while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Kennedy swam with the surviving crew members to safety several miles away, carrying one injured sailor by pulling the man’s life jacket strap by his teeth. When asked later how he became a hero, Kennedy replied: "It was easy—they sank my boat." Now a decorated World War II officer, Kennedy took up his father’s presidential hopes after his older brother, Joseph, died in combat.

Before being elected president, Kennedy represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate. He married Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953, soon after he became a senator. In 1960, he was elected president of the United States by the narrowest popular voting margin in history, becoming the youngest person and the only Catholic to ever be elected president.


COLD WAR CONFLICTS

The Cold War—a period of tensions mostly between the United States and the former Soviet Union, now called Russia—dominated much of Kennedy’s presidency. First, the U.S. government secretly tried to overthrow the island of Cuba’s new leader and Soviet Union ally, Fidel Castro, in a failed mission known as the Bay of Pigs. Then the Soviet Union built a wall in Germany, dividing East Berlin, which was under control of communist Soviet Union, and West Berlin, which was supported by the democratic West. This angered Germans on both sides of the wall and citizens of nearby countries. Kennedy visited West Berlin and vowed U.S. support to the people there, stating: "Ich bin ein Berliner," or "I am a Berliner" in German.

Cold War tensions cooled off in 1963 after the two nations signed a treaty, but the conflict would last until around 1990.

FIGHTING FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

Another issue Kennedy dealt with during his presidency was civil rights, or the idea that all U.S. citizens should have the same basic rights regardless of the color of their skin, and their religion. Kennedy wanted to pass more laws that would guarantee equal rights for all citizens.

Before Kennedy became president, the Supreme Court passed a ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that schools had to desegregate, or allow white and black children to attend the same school. Kennedy publicly supported the ruling and even sent military troops to the southern states to make sure African-American kids were getting safely to school.

Near the end of Kennedy’s time in office in 1963, more than 200,000 people took part in a March on Washington during the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation speech. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the gathering.


DEATH IN DALLAS

Kennedy had only been president for a little less than three years when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, while touring Dallas, Texas, in a presidential motorcade. Gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the death but was killed himself before he could be put on trial.

More than a hundred nations sent representatives to Kennedy’s funeral in Washington, D.C. Although he was only president for a short time, his calls for peace, justice, and national service—JFK famously said "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" when he first became president in 1961—inspired action among countless citizens during his lifetime and continue to influence others today.

From the Nat Geo Kids books Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum and Weird But True Know-It-All: U.S. Presidents by Brianna Dumont, revised for digital by Avery Hurt

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