On November 8, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, then 43 years old, became the youngest person to be elected president of the United States. He served for only 1,037 days. But in that short time, he changed the way Americans viewed themselves and the world.
Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917. He was the second of nine children in a wealthy Irish-American family. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, expected his children to excel at school and sports.
After graduating from college, Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy. During World War II, he commanded a small patrol boat in the South Pacific. His job was to search for enemy ships. One night, a Japanese warship rammed his boat. Kennedy was seriously injured. But he swam through dangerous waters to lead his men to safety. For his bravery, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
After the war, Kennedy entered politics in Massachusetts. In 1946, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He then made a successful run for the Senate. Within eight years of becoming a U.S. senator, he became president.
President Kennedy took office on January 20, 1961. He often said he wanted “He Kept the Peace” inscribed on his tombstone. In his inaugural address, he asked America’s enemies to “begin anew the quest for peace.” That wish was put to the test early in his administration.
Since the end of World War II, Americans had feared the growing military strength of the Soviet Union. The country had a communist government, which limited people’s freedoms. (In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up into 15 countries, including Russia.) The U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in a war of words known as the Cold War. Both nations wanted to be the biggest political, economic, and military power in the world. The stakes were high. Both countries had dangerous nuclear weapons.
In 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ordered a wall to be built in Berlin, Germany. It was meant to keep people in Soviet-controlled East Berlin from traveling to democratic West Berlin. At first, Kennedy did not challenge the building of the Berlin Wall. But in 1963, he visited West Berlin. There, Kennedy pledged his opposition to communism and his support for the city’s residents. “I am a Berliner,” he said in German to a crowd of 120,000 people.
Communism was also making inroads just 90 miles from Florida, on the island of Cuba. In 1959, Fidel Castro led a revolution that overthrew Cuba’s government. Many Cubans fled their homeland. They feared Castro’s communist policies. The U.S. saw Cuba as a national security threat. In 1961, Kennedy approved an operation to overthrow Castro. U.S.-trained anti-Castro Cubans mounted an assault on Cuba. But it went terribly wrong. U.S. aid for the operation failed to arrive. Castro’s forces crushed the invasion force at the Bay of Pigs.
Tensions escalated in 1962. The Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The weapons could have reached the U.S. mainland. President Kennedy was determined to avoid a nuclear war. For 13 days, he worked to find a solution to the crisis. Kennedy ordered U.S. ships to form a ring around Cuba. The ships blockaded the island from receiving outside aid and weapons. The blockade, along with negotiations, convinced the Soviets to remove the missiles. Eventually, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed a treaty banning nuclear-weapons testing.
President John F. Kennedy speaks on the telephone in the Oval Office of the White House on August 23, 1962.
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Not all of President Kennedy’s time was consumed with foreign affairs. At home, he inspired change and dedicatio
President Kennedy encouraged space exploration. He vowed that an American would stand on the moon before the end of the 1960s. He pushed for equality for all Americans by asking Congress to pass a civil rights bill. “This nation, for all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free,” he said in a televised speech. Kennedy also promoted understanding around the world. He established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. Since its founding, more than 225,000 volunteers have helped poor communities in 141 countries.
Kennedy was looking to the future when he visited Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. He hoped to build support for his reelection campaign. Cheering crowds lined the streets, hoping to see the president and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy. Sitting in an open car, the Kennedys smiled and waved. Suddenly, shots rang out. The president slumped over. He was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m. About an hour later, the police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald.
In the years since Kennedy’s assassination, some critics have said that he cannot be called one of the country’s greatest presidents. Their reason is that he did not accomplish enough during his three years in office. But to many, President John F. Kennedy is a hero.
Kennedy challenged a nation. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” he said during his inauguration speech. His words and deeds inspired Americans to become involved in public service. That, his daughter, Caroline Kennedy, wrote in TIME, is one of her father’s greatest legacies.