On November 22, 1963, when he was hardly past his first thousand days in office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot to death as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was the youngest man elected president; he was the youngest to die.
Of Irish descent, he was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, son of financier Joseph Kennedy and his wife Rose, on May 29, 1917. Graduating from Harvard in 1940, he entered the Navy. In 1943, when his PT boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy, despite grave injuries, led the survivors through perilous waters to safety.
Back from the war, he became a Democratic congressman from Boston, advancing in 1953 to the Senate. He married Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12, 1953. They had a daughter, Caroline, a son, John Jr., and another son, Patrick, who died soon after birth. In 1955, while recuperating from a back operation, he wrote Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history.
In 1956 Kennedy almost gained the Democratic nomination for vice president, and four years later was a first-ballot nominee for president. Millions watched his television debates with the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Winning by a narrow margin in the popular vote, Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president.
His Inaugural Address offered the memorable injunction: "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." As president, he set out to redeem his campaign pledge to get America moving again. After two years of temporizing, Kennedy in 1963 called on Congress to pass a civil rights bill that would desegregate hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations.
His vision also extended to the quality of the national culture and the role of the arts in American society. Jacqueline Kennedy sought to make the White House a world-class museum, saved architectural treasures from the wrecker's ball, and improved the appearance of Pennsylvania Avenue.
President Kennedy wanted America to resume its old mission as the first nation dedicated to the revolution of human rights. With the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps, he brought American idealism to the aid of developing nations. But the Cold War was still on with a vengeance.
Shortly after his inauguration, Kennedy permitted a band of Cuban exiles, already armed and trained, to invade their homeland. The attempt to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro was a failure. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union renewed its campaign against West Berlin. Kennedy replied by increasing the nation's military strength, including new efforts in outer space. Confronted by this reaction, Moscow, after the creation of the Berlin Wall, relaxed its pressure in central Europe.
But in the summer of 1962, the Soviets secretly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. When this was discovered by air reconnaissance in October, Kennedy imposed a quarantine on all offensive weapons bound for Cuba. While the world trembled on the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy initiated secret negotiations and persuaded the Kremlin to take the missiles out in exchange for certain quiet American concessions.
Kennedy declared that both sides had a vital interest in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and slowing the arms race. This led to a partial nuclear test ban treaty in 1963.
That November, Kennedy was murdered and the world mourned. Almost a half-century later, Americans remember his charm, wit, bravery, glamour, intelligence, and above all, the potential for future leadership of which the entire nation had been so suddenly robbed.