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President John F. Kennedy was in office less than three years before his tenure came to an abrupt and bloody end. He didn't live to see the impact of his presidency, or to fulfill all he set out to accomplish when he entered the White House in 1961.
Kennedy came into office in 1961 at age 43, the youngest president ever to take office and the first Catholic president. Succeeding Dwight Eisenhower, the oldest president elected since James Buchanan in 1857, Kennedy brought a dose of youthfulness and energy to the job.
He entered office at a dynamic time, both at home and abroad. He was the first peacetime president in more than two decades, but Kennedy inherited Cold War tensions, a sluggish economy and simmering social unrest.
In his inaugural address, Kennedy acknowledged the profound challenges that lay ahead. “The world is very different now," he said. "For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”
In the speech, he expressed hope for peace, but also welcomed his generation’s role of “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” It was a responsibility that Kennedy took to heart and one that quickly led him into perhaps the biggest blunder of his presidency.
Just four months into his first term, Kennedy signed off on a plan to oust Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The U.S. provided training and supplies to Cuban exiles who were supposed to swiftly invade Cuba through the Bay of Pigs and topple its communist leader. Instead, the rebels found themselves outgunned and lacking critical intelligence. Their surrender was an embarrassment to Kennedy and a blemish on his early record in office.
But the president rebounded quickly. The following month he delivered an unexpected State of the Union address, recalibrating in the wake of his failure.
In the speech, which he said was warranted by the "extraordinary challenge" of upholding freedom, Kennedy laid out a vision of using aid and other peaceful measures to stanch the spread of communism.
“No amount of arms and armies can help stabilize those governments which are unable or unwilling to achieve social and economic reform and development,” he said.
Kennedy also unveiled in the famous speech one of the most ambitious plans of his presidency: to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He framed the project as a response to Soviet space achievements (they had sent the first man to space the previous month) and a way to sway “the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”
The speech was not a turning point, but his success, months later, in steering the U.S. from the brink of nuclear war, certainly was. in October 1962 Kennedy managed to strike a deal with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that prevented the installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States. The Soviets nixed their plan in exchange for the United State’s removal of missiles from Turkey. Kennedy's ability to appear cool and level-headed amid such a high-stakes crisis bolstered his image on the international stage.
Meanwhile, Kennedy was also navigating the growing conflict in Laos and Vietnam, which were steadily falling into the sphere of communist influence. He aimed for a measured approach, boosting U.S. aid and military presence in the region, without entering U.S. forces into combat.
“They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them … but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam against the Communists,” he said, adding that he also did not believe the U.S. should withdraw. “We also have to participate—we may not like it—in the defense of Asia.”
On the domestic front, Kennedy found himself the target of criticism from both civil rights proponents and segregationists who were engaged in a fiery fight over the future of America. Though he ran on a pro-civil rights platform, once elected, he was reluctant to push too hard or too early for legislation that would dismantle the country's system of racial inequality.
Civil rights leaders were particularly critical of Kennedy’s appointment of southern conservatives to federal judgeships and his failure to introduce a civil rights bill early in his presidency.
But Kennedy did use his powers to intervene in several high-profile instances, most notably the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. Kennedy ordered federal marshals to escort a black student, James Meredith, into the school amid massive protests that later turned violent. Months earlier, he had ratcheted up his rhetoric, framing civil rights as a “moral issue … as old as the Scriptures and … as clear as the American Constitution.”
He finally submitted a civil rights bill toward the end of 1963 but died before its passage.
He did live long enough, however, to see other significant goals accomplished. During his tenure, the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union agreed to limit nuclear testing after Kennedy and Khrushchev entered into negotiations in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Though he died before Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon, making his vision a reality, Kennedy did live to see John Glenn orbit the earth. He was also able to watch the rapid development of the Peace Corp., which he established by executive order in 1961. In its first years, hundreds of Americans traveled to developing countries, bringing with them Kennedy’s vision of peace, friendship and service—a vision he consistently hammered in his major addresses.
In his final speech, which he never had the chance to deliver, Kennedy was to tout America’s strength, but emphasize that strength should only be used in the pursuit of peace.
“We ask ... that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility," Kennedy was set to say at Trade Mart in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, according to the prepared text. "… and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, good will toward men.'"