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John F. Kennedy

Should the United States maintain the embargo enforced by John F. Kennedy against Cuba?

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The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C., April 14th, 1865; from a lithograph by Currier and Ives.

John F. Kennedy

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John F. Kennedy

What was John F. Kennedy’s family like?

John F. Kennedy was reared in a large Roman Catholic family of Irish descent that demanded intense physical and intellectual competition among its nine siblings. Steeped in Democratic Party politics, the family produced three presidential candidates: John and his brothers Robert and Ted .

What were John F. Kennedy’s parents’ names?

John F. Kennedy’s father was Joseph P. Kennedy , who acquired a multimillion-dollar fortune in banking, bootlegging, shipbuilding, motion pictures, and the stock market and who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. His mother, Rose , was the daughter of John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald, onetime mayor of Boston .

When was John F. Kennedy born and when did he die?

John F. Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline , Massachusetts , and he was assassinated in Dallas , Texas , on November 22, 1963. While riding in a motorcade, he was struck by two rifle bullets and died shortly after hospitalization. Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of the slaying.

What were John F. Kennedy’s jobs?

John F. Kennedy served in the U.S. Navy during World War II , represented the Massachusetts 11th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms (1947–53), served two terms as a U.S. senator for Massachusetts (1953–60), and was the 35th president of the United States (1961–63).

What was John F. Kennedy famous for?

John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, sparked the idealism of “a new generation of Americans” with his charm and optimism, championed the U.S. space program , and showed cool dynamic leadership during the Cuban missile crisis , before becoming the victim of an assassination .

Whether the U.S. should maintain its embargo enforced by John F. Kennedy against Cuba is hotly debated. Some say Cuba has not met the conditions required to lift it, and the U.S. will look weak for lifting the sanctions. Others say the 50-year policy has failed to achieve its goals, and Cuba does not pose a threat to the United States. For more on the Cuba embargo debate, visit ProCon.org .

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biography of jfk

John F. Kennedy (born May 29, 1917, Brookline , Massachusetts , U.S.—died November 22, 1963, Dallas , Texas) was the 35th president of the United States (1961–63), who faced a number of foreign crises, especially in Cuba and Berlin, but managed to secure such achievements as the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Alliance for Progress . He was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.

(Read John Kennedy’s Britannica entry on Oliver Ellsworth.)

biography of jfk

The second of nine children, Kennedy was reared in a family that demanded intense physical and intellectual competition among the siblings—the family’s touch football games at their Hyannis Port retreat later became legendary—and was schooled in the religious teachings of the Roman Catholic church and the political precepts of the Democratic Party. His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy , had acquired a multimillion-dollar fortune in banking, bootlegging, shipbuilding, and the film industry, and as a skilled player of the stock market . His mother, Rose , was the daughter of John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald, onetime mayor of Boston. They established trust funds for their children that guaranteed lifelong financial independence. After serving as the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission , Joseph Kennedy became the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, and for six months in 1938 John served as his secretary, drawing on that experience to write his senior thesis at Harvard University (B.S., 1940) on Great Britain’s military unpreparedness. He then expanded that thesis into a best-selling book, Why England Slept (1940).

biography of jfk

In the fall of 1941 Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy and two years later was sent to the South Pacific. By the time he was discharged in 1945, his older brother, Joe, who their father had expected would be the first Kennedy to run for office, had been killed in the war, and the family’s political standard passed to John, who had planned to pursue an academic or journalistic career.

Wreckage of the U-2 spy plane shot down inside the Soviet Union in 1960. U-2 spy plane incident, U-2 affair, Cold War.

John Kennedy himself had barely escaped death in battle. Commanding a patrol torpedo (PT) boat, he was gravely injured when a Japanese destroyer sank it in the Solomon Islands. Marooned far behind enemy lines, he led his men back to safety and was awarded the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. He also returned to active command at his own request. (These events were later depicted in a Hollywood film, PT 109 [1963], that contributed to the Kennedy mystique.) However, the further injury to his back, which had bothered him since his teens, never really healed. Despite operations in 1944, 1954, and 1955, he was in pain for much of the rest of his life. He also suffered from Addison disease , though this affliction was publicly concealed. “At least one-half of the days he spent on this earth,” wrote his brother Robert , “were days of intense physical pain.” (After he became president , Kennedy combated the pain with injections of amphetamines —then thought to be harmless and used by more than a few celebrities for their energizing effect. According to some reports, both Kennedy and the first lady became heavily dependent on these injections through weekly use.) None of this prevented Kennedy from undertaking a strenuous life in politics. His family expected him to run for public office and to win.

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The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW Washington, DC 20500

Portrait of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States

John F. Kennedy

The 35th President of the United States

The biography for President Kennedy and past presidents is courtesy of the White House Historical Association.

John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States (1961-1963), the youngest man elected to the office. On November 22, 1963, when he was hardly past his first thousand days in office, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, becoming also the youngest President to die.

On November 22, 1963, when he was hardly past his first thousand days in office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullets 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, 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 the Boston area, advancing in 1953 to the Senate. He married Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12, 1953. In 1955, while recuperating from a back operation, he wrote Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 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 M. 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. His economic programs launched the country on its longest sustained expansion since World War II; before his death, he laid plans for a massive assault on persisting pockets of privation and poverty.

Responding to ever more urgent demands, he took vigorous action in the cause of equal rights, calling for new civil rights legislation. His vision of America extended to the quality of the national culture and the central role of the arts in a vital society.

He wished 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 hard reality of the Communist challenge remained.

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 reinforcing the Berlin garrison and increasing the Nation’s military strength, including new efforts in outer space. Confronted by this reaction, Moscow, after the erection of the Berlin Wall, relaxed its pressure in central Europe.

Instead, the Russians now sought to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. When this was discovered by air reconnaissance in October 1962, Kennedy imposed a quarantine on all offensive weapons bound for Cuba. While the world trembled on the brink of nuclear war, the Russians backed down and agreed to take the missiles away. The American response to the Cuban crisis evidently persuaded Moscow of the futility of nuclear blackmail.

Kennedy now contended that both sides had a vital interest in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and slowing the arms race–a contention which led to the test ban treaty of 1963. The months after the Cuban crisis showed significant progress toward his goal of “a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war and coercion.” His administration thus saw the beginning of new hope for both the equal rights of Americans and the peace of the world.

For more information about President Kennedy, please visit the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

Learn more about John F. Kennedy’s spouse, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy .

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John F. Kennedy

By: History.com Editors

Updated: April 16, 2024 | Original: October 29, 2009

Close-up of American Senator (and future US President) John F Kennedy (1917 - 1963) as he listens to testimony during McClellan Committee's investigation of the Teamsters Union, Washington DC, February 26, 1957.

Elected in 1960 as the 35th president of the United States, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy became one of the youngest U.S. presidents, as well as the first Roman Catholic to hold the office. Born into one of America’s wealthiest families, he parlayed an elite education and a reputation as a military hero into a successful run for Congress in 1946 and for the Senate in 1952. 

As president, Kennedy confronted mounting Cold War tensions in Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere. He also led a renewed drive for public service and eventually provided federal support for the growing civil rights movement. His assassination on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, sent shockwaves around the world and turned the all-too-human Kennedy into a larger-than-life heroic figure. To this day, historians continue to rank him among the best-loved presidents in American history.

John F. Kennedy’s Early Life

Born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy (known as Jack) was the second of nine children. His parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, hailed from two of Boston’s most prominent Irish Catholic political families. Despite persistent health problems throughout his childhood and teenage years (he would later be diagnosed with a rare endocrine disorder called Addison’s disease), Jack led a privileged youth. He attended private schools such as Canterbury and Choate and spent summers in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod.

Joe Kennedy, a hugely successful businessman and an early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt , was appointed chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934 and named U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in 1937. As a student at Harvard University, Jack traveled in Europe as his father’s secretary. His senior thesis about Britain’s unpreparedness for war was later published as an acclaimed book, Why England Slept (1940).

biography of jfk

Watch the three-episode documentary event, Kennedy . Available to stream now.

Did you know? John F. Kennedy's Senate career got off to a rocky start when he refused to condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy, a personal friend of the Kennedy family whom the Senate voted to censure in 1954 for his relentless pursuit of suspected communists. In the end, though he planned to vote against McCarthy, Kennedy missed the vote when he was hospitalized after back surgery.

Jack joined the U.S. Navy in 1941 and two years later was sent to the South Pacific, where he was given command of a Patrol-Torpedo (PT) boat. In August 1943, a Japanese destroyer struck the craft, PT-109, in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy helped some of his marooned crew back to safety and was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. His older brother, Joe Jr., was not so fortunate: He was killed in August 1944 when his Navy airplane exploded on a secret mission against a German rocket-launching site. A grieving Joe Sr. told Jack it was his duty to fulfill the destiny once intended for Joe Jr.—to become the first Catholic president of the United States.

JFK’s Beginnings in Politics

Abandoning plans to be a journalist, Jack left the Navy by the end of 1944. Less than a year later, he returned to Boston, preparing a run for Congress in 1946. As a moderately conservative Democrat, and backed by his father’s fortune, Jack won his party’s nomination handily and carried the mostly working-class Eleventh District by nearly three to one over his Republican opponent in the general election. He entered the 80th Congress in January 1947, at the age of 29, and immediately attracted attention (as well as some criticism from older members of the Washington establishment) for his youthful appearance and relaxed, informal style.

Kennedy won reelection to the House of Representatives in 1948 and 1950, and in 1952 ran successfully for the Senate, defeating the popular Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. On September 12, 1953, Kennedy married the beautiful socialite and journalist Jacqueline (Jackie) Lee Bouvier. Two years later, he was forced to undergo a painful operation on his back. While recovering from the surgery, Jack wrote another best-selling book, Profiles in Courage , which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957. (The book was later revealed to be mostly the work of Kennedy’s longtime aide, Theodore Sorenson.)

Kennedy’s Road to Presidency

After nearly earning his party’s nomination for vice president (under Adlai Stevenson) in 1956, Kennedy announced his candidacy for president on January 2, 1960. He defeated a primary challenge from the more liberal Hubert Humphrey and chose the Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, as his running mate. In the general election, Kennedy faced a difficult battle against his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, a two-term vice president under the popular Dwight D. Eisenhower . 

Offering a young, energetic alternative to Nixon and the status quo, Kennedy benefited from his performance (and telegenic appearance) in the first-ever televised presidential debates, watched by millions of viewers. In November’s election, Kennedy won by a narrow margin—fewer than 120,000 out of some 70 million votes cast—becoming the youngest man and the first Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States.

With his beautiful young wife and their two small children (Caroline, born in 1957, and John Jr., born just weeks after the election), Kennedy lent an unmistakable aura of youth and glamour to the White House . In his inaugural address, given on January 20, 1961, the new president called on his fellow Americans to work together in the pursuit of progress and the elimination of poverty, but also in the battle to win the ongoing Cold War against communism around the world. Kennedy’s famous closing words expressed the need for cooperation and sacrifice on the part of the American people: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy’s Foreign Policy Challenges

An early crisis in the foreign affairs arena occurred in April 1961, when Kennedy approved the plan to send 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles in an amphibious landing at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. Intended to spur a rebellion that would overthrow the communist leader Fidel Castro , the mission ended in failure, with nearly all of the exiles captured or killed. 

That June, Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna to discuss the city of Berlin, which had been divided after World War II between Allied and Soviet control. Two months later, East German troops began erecting a wall to divide the city. Kennedy sent an army convoy to reassure West Berliners of U.S. support, and would deliver one of his most famous speeches in West Berlin in June 1963.

Kennedy clashed again with Khrushchev in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis . After learning that the Soviet Union was constructing a number of nuclear and long-range missile sites in Cuba that could pose a threat to the continental United States, Kennedy announced a naval blockade of Cuba. 

The tense standoff lasted nearly two weeks before Khrushchev agreed to dismantle Soviet missile sites in Cuba in return for America’s promise not to invade the island and the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and other sites close to Soviet borders. In July 1963, Kennedy won his greatest foreign affairs victory when Khrushchev agreed to join him and Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in signing a nuclear test ban treaty. In Southeast Asia, however, Kennedy’s desire to curb the spread of communism led him to escalate U.S. involvement in the conflict in Vietnam, even as privately he expressed his dismay over the situation.

Kennedy’s Leadership at Home

During his first year in office, Kennedy oversaw the launch of the Peace Corps, which would send young volunteers to underdeveloped countries all over the world. Otherwise, he was unable to achieve much of his proposed legislation during his lifetime, including two of his biggest priorities: income tax cuts and a civil rights bill. Slow to commit himself to the civil rights cause, events forced Kennedy into action, spurring him to send federal troops to support the desegregation of the University of Mississippi after riots there left two dead and many others injured. The following summer, Kennedy announced his intention to propose a comprehensive civil rights bill and endorsed the massive March on Washington that took place that August.

Kennedy held enormous popularity, both at home and abroad, and his family drew famous comparisons to King Arthur’s court at Camelot. His brother Bobby served as his attorney general, while the youngest Kennedy son, Edward (Ted), was elected to Jack’s former Senate seat in 1962. Jackie Kennedy became an international icon of style, beauty and sophistication, though stories of her husband’s numerous marital infidelities (and his personal association with members of organized crime) would later emerge to complicate the Kennedys’ idyllic image.

JFK’s Assassination

On November 22, 1963, the president and his wife landed in Dallas; he had spoken in San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth the day before. From the airfield, the party then traveled in a motorcade to the Dallas Trade Mart, the site of Jack’s next speaking engagement. Shortly after 12:30 p.m., as the motorcade passed through downtown Dallas, shots rang out . Bullets struck Kennedy twice, in the neck and head; he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at a nearby hospital.

Authorities arrested 24-old Lee Harvey Oswald, known to have Communist sympathies, for the killing. But he was shot and fatally wounded two days later by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being led to jail. Almost immediately, alternative theories of Kennedy’s assassination emerged—including conspiracies allegedly run by the KGB , the Mafia and the U.S. military-industrial complex, among others. A presidential commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald had acted alone, but speculation and debate over the assassination have persisted.

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JFK Biography

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, a few miles outside of Boston. His parents were Joseph Kennedy, a successful businessman, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was the second of nine children. While Jack grew up with every material advantage, he suffered from a series of medical ailments but learned to underplay the effects of his illnesses.

refer to caption

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy pose for a portrait with their children, Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr., on a porch in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. August 4, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum Local Identifier: ST-C22-1-62

World War II changed Kennedy in many ways. He joined the Navy and served in the Pacific, where his PT boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. He never forgot his own war experience and the bravery of his Navy crew.

After the war, JFK decided to run for office. In 1946 he won election as congressman for Massachusetts and served for six years. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952. In 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier, and their daughter, Caroline, was born in 1957, and their son, John Jr., was born in 1960.

At 43 years old, he became the youngest man elected President of the United States, defeating Richard Nixon in 1960.

One of his first actions after taking office was creating the Peace Corps, which today still sends volunteers on two-year missions to live and work with people around the globe.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962 threatened the world with possible nuclear war. The United States confronted the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear weapons on Cuba, and in secret negotiations, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles.

Kennedy challenged the U.S. to be the first country to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. The United States reached President Kennedy’s goal on July 20, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface.

At home, Kennedy urged an end to racial segregation and asked Congress for a civil rights bill. Before the bill could get through Congress, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

People remember John F. Kennedy as a President who was young and energetic. But he is also remembered as a leader who made a difference. His words and actions made people want to help others and serve their country.

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The Life and Presidency of John F. Kennedy

The Official 2020 White House Christmas Ornament historical essay

  • William Seale Author & Historian

Kennedys in Front of the White House Christmas Tree

This photograph by White House photographer Robert Knudsen shows President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy next to the Blue Room Christmas tree. This photograph was taken in 1961 before the extensive renovations initiated by the first lady.

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The White House Historical Association’s 2020 Official White House Christmas Ornament honors John Fitzgerald Kennedy , the thirty-fifth president of the United States. The youngest president since Theodore Roosevelt , Kennedy took office in January 1961, at age 43. Before his vibrant presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963, he had reinvigorated the American spirit. His legacy lives on in his youthful belief in America and his faith in America’s responsibilities to the world.

With this ornament we remember President Kennedy through his posthumous official White House portrait, made in 1970 by Aaron Shikler, the artist selected by the president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy . The portrait, symbolic of his unfinished presidency, hangs in the White House today. Shikler recalled that Mrs. Kennedy did not want the portrait to look the way other artists had portrayed him. “I painted him with his head bowed, not because I think of him as a martyr,” Shikler said, “but because I wanted to show him as a president who was a thinker. . . . All presidential portraits have eyes that look right at you. I wanted to do something with more meaning. I hoped to show a courage that made him humble.”

The reverse of the ornament features the dates of President Kennedy’s brief term, 1961–1963, on either side of an engraving of the White House. The White House as it is today is another Kennedy legacy. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy restored the furnishings and decor of the State Rooms to the era of the early presidents and invited the public to view them in a television special. “The White House belongs to the American people,” she said. The White House Historical Association, which Mrs. Kennedy founded in 1961 continues today to fulfill the mission she envisioned: “to enhance understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the historic White House.” The Association remains a lasting legacy of a presidential term unfinished.

2020 Ornament Booklet Photos - 1

The portrait of President John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler in the Cross Hall on the State Floor of the White House, 2019.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917–1963

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, born in Brookline, Massachusetts, was the second son in a prominent Irish Catholic family. His father, Joseph Kennedy, was a well-known businessman, and his mother, Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of a U.S. congressman and mayor of Boston. The family, eventually with nine children, was close knit and political, and regarded public service as a calling. They spent summers on Cape Cod, swimming, sailing, and playing touch football, and their cottage in Hyannis Port was eventually enlarged to become the Kennedy Compound, with several additional residences. Joe Kennedy had high expectations for his children, and he encouraged his sons, especially, to be athletic and competitive. All four Kennedy sons played football at Harvard. In his junior year, John Kennedy took an extended visit to London, where his father was serving as ambassador to Great Britain. Graduating from Harvard in 1940, John expanded his senior thesis into a book, Why England Slept , which examined that country’s lack of preparation for war.

World War II had already begun, and although the United States was not yet directly involved, both John and his older brother, Joe Jr., joined the U.S. Navy in 1941. Joe went to pilot school and John received special training for patrol torpedo boats, the famous PTs. In 1943 he was sent to the South Pacific and assumed command of PT 109, with a mission to agitate and sink Japanese supply ships. On patrol the night of August 1–2, 1943, his boat was struck in the inky darkness by a Japanese destroyer. Two crew members died in the fiery collision, but eleven, one badly injured, clung to the hull until morning. Despite his own injuries, Kennedy managed to get all of them to shore and then secure their rescue, six days later, with the help of native islanders friendly to the Allies. For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart. He was assigned to another PT boat but contracted malaria and was sent back to the United States. During his recovery came word that his older brother, Joe Jr., had died in an airplane accident over England. Joe had been the one his father always said would be president someday.

Joe’s death changed the trajectory of John’s life. John had thought of being a writer, but at his father’s urging, in 1946 he ran for a Boston seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and won. In Congress he represented his working-class district with a strong stand for labor and unions. He also supported U.S. foreign aid and military assistance. Well-liked and well respected, he was reelected twice before winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1952, defeating incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge of the old Boston aristocracy.

Kennedy now had a national reputation. In the Senate he pursued his interests in foreign affairs and in history, writing a second book that won the Pulitzer Prize, Profiles in Courage , stories of eight senators who placed service to country above their careers. In 1953 he married Jacqueline Bouvier, and their first child, Caroline, was born in 1957. Consideration as a potential vice-presidential candidate at the Democratic Convention of 1956 positioned him for a run for president in 1960.

No Roman Catholic had ever won the presidency, but Kennedy’s forceful statements about placing public service over private religious affiliation proved convincing. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention he introduced what he called the New Frontier, a promise to move the nation forward by increasing economic opportunity, civil rights, and military preparedness as Cold War tensions with the communist Soviet Union escalated. Facing Republican Richard M. Nixon in the nation’s first televised debate, Kennedy appeared both poised and commanding. In November he won the presidency by a narrow majority.

John F. Kennedy

Portrait by Aaron Shikler of President John F. Kennedy, 1970.

The Kennedy Administration, 1961–63

Inauguration Day dawned bright and cold following a snowstorm. Standing bare headed in the sun, the new president offered not promises but a challenge. He called on foreign adversaries to “begin anew the quest for peace” and on his “fellow Americans” to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

One of Kennedy’s first acts as president was to create the Peace Corps, a program that sent young people to developing nations, to live among the people they helped. In addition to technical assistance for projects in health, sanitation, and education, their objective was “to promote peace and friendship.” More than seven thousand idealistic Americans, young and old, signed up. Kennedy asked Congress for legislation that increased the minimum wage, provided health insurance for the aged, and scholarship aid for those studying medicine, dentistry, and nursing. He reinvigorated America’s space program with a commitment to landing a man on the moon, and bringing him safely back to earth, “before this decade is out.”

But several months into his administration Kennedy’s attention to domestic issues was interrupted by a foreign crisis. He had approved an Eisenhower-era plan for overthrowing Cuba’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro. But when CIA-trained Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, they were captured. Kennedy accepted full responsibility, then turned to his predecessor for wisdom, inviting former President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Camp David. Sobered by failure, Kennedy stood firm when he met Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June. Khrushchev sought to force the Allied powers out of Berlin, which had been divided at the end of World War II. When Kennedy would not withdraw, Khrushchev ordered a wall built between the Soviet and Allied zones of the city. Cold War tensions escalated, and a nuclear arms race resumed.

The next year brought a much more dangerous crisis. In October, when the Soviets began to install missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles from the U.S. shores, the superpowers were brought to the brink of nuclear war. Putting the U.S. military on high alert and assembling a panel of security advisers, Kennedy considered possible responses. On October 22 he announced a quarantine of the island and sent the U.S. Navy to enforce it. As Soviet ships with supplies for the missile sites approached, the whole world was watching. At the last minute the ships turned around, and in the next days behind the scenes communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev opened a resolution. Khrushchev agreed to remove the Cuban missiles if Kennedy would promise that the United States would not invade Cuba and, in an agreement secret at the time, would remove U.S. missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviet heartland. On November 2 Kennedy announced that “progress is now being made toward peace in the Caribbean.”

Meanwhile Kennedy and the nation faced a series of domestic crises over civil rights. In 1954 the Supreme Court had ordered that racial segregation in schools be ended, but southern resistance was strong. Violence against protests by young people sitting in at lunch counters, riding interstate buses, and attempting to attend previously all-white state colleges led Attorney General Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy’s younger brother and closest adviser, to send in federal marshals, again and again. In June 1963, when the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, “stood in the schoolhouse door,” as he promised, to prevent African Americans from registering at the University of Alabama, President Kennedy went on television to address the issue of civil rights head on. It is not a sectional issue, he said, not a partisan issue, or even just a legal or legislative issue, but “a moral issue.” “The heart of the question,” he continued, “is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” He called on Congress to enact legislation protecting the rights of all Americans to be served in places of public accommodation and to vote without penalty or intimidation.

Kennedy’s comprehensive civil rights bill was under debate in Congress, when, in August, a March on Washington brought a quarter of a million supporters to the National Mall. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers led the crowd in “We Shall Overcome,” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the nation “to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . ‘that all men are created equal.’” In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act through Congress in tribute to Kennedy, and a Voting Rights Act followed the next year.

Kennedy’s confidence in the purpose of America and in Americans’ ability to solve problems seemed on the way to being realized that summer. In June, at a commencement address at American University, he announced that his topic would be “the most important on earth: world peace.” “Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I’m talking about genuine peace,” he said, “the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for all their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” He called on Americans to “reexamine our attitude toward the Soviet Union,” not to give in to propaganda and distorted views that “see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” “Let us direct our attention to our common interests,” he said, “for, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

At the end of the speech Kennedy announced negotiations under way for a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets; it was signed in August, and a few weeks later a “hot line” was installed, a direct link between Washington and Moscow that would permit instantaneous communication between the superpowers. Visiting the Berlin Wall that summer, Kennedy repeated his themes of freedom and peace. “Freedom is indivisible,” he said. “Lift your eyes beyond the dangers to today, to the hopes of tomorrow . . . to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.”

The Kennedy Family in the White House

Not since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt had there been little children in the White House. Caroline was three when the Kennedys moved in, and John just two months old. Photographs of them romping with their father in the Oval Office and of Caroline riding her pony, Macaroni, on the White House lawn endeared this young family to all Americans, of all political persuasions. When Khrushchev sent Caroline a white puppy, Pushinka, and when Pushinka and the family’s beloved Welsh terrier, Charlie, had puppies together, the photo ops were irresistible.

Yet Jacqueline Kennedy was protective of her children, wanting to preserve for them as normal a childhood as possible. She established a preschool for Caroline on the Third Floor of the White House and invited friends’ children to join. Always she sought to carve out a private, affectionate life for her family, even as she recognized her responsibilities as America’s first lady.

John F. Kennedy, Caroline, and John Jr. with their Pony, Macaroni

This photograph shows President John F. Kennedy with Caroline, John, Jr., and Caroline's pony, Macaroni. They stand just outside of the Oval Office, beside the Rose Garden and West Colonnade.

Summers the family spent in the Kennedy Compound on Cape Cod, with cousins and all the outdoor games that the Kennedys had always played with vigor. At other times of the year they escaped, when they could to a farm called Glen Ora, near Middleburg, Virginia, where Mrs. Kennedy, an excellent horsewoman, enjoyed the freedom of riding through open fields. Palm Beach, where Joe Kennedy had a large stucco house, was another sanctuary, and often where the Kennedys spent holidays with their many relatives.

Jacqueline Kennedy wanted a comfortable home for her family, and her first task on moving into the White House was to remake the upstairs quarters with her children in mind. A kitchen and private dining room were added, and the furnishings changed to suit the domestic life of a young family. But her lasting contributions were to the decor of the State Floor rooms , which she restored and furnished with antiques as well as some original pieces donated back to the White House with the encouragement of her advisory committee. As much as possible, she hoped the public spaces could be a repository for American fine arts and decorative arts. She pushed Congress for legislation that made certain the furnishings were not sold off again at auction, as had been the practice in the past.

She established the White House Historical Association , hired the mansion’s first curator, and edited its first guidebook—proceeds from which continue to be used to acquire furnishings and preserve the historic fabric of the White House. The Executive Residence’s historic setting on Lafayette Square led to yet another project. Together the Kennedys preserved the square as a nineteenth-century residential neighborhood, its central park a green retreat in marble Washington. Outside the Oval Office they planted a Rose Garden that was both a private retreat and a ceremonial platform.

To this elegant setting the Kennedys invited the nation’s famous writers, artists, and musicians for both formal and informal events. They wanted the White House to showcase American performing arts and to serve as a stage for symbolizing the best of America and the American presidency. Their commitment to federal support for the arts would, in the years ahead, be realized in the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities and in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts , built on the shore of the Potomac River in Washington.

2020 Ornament Booklet Photo - 2

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy stands before television cameras in the State Dining Room during her televised tour of the White House, 1962.

The Kennedy Christmas Celebrations

For the family’s first Christmas in the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy decorated the official White House Christmas tree, set up in the Blue Room, with tiny toys, birds, sugarplum fairies, and angels that evoked Petr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Thus began a tradition of White House tree decorations that carry out a specific theme. The 1962 tree, in the North Entrance, continued the children’s theme with brightly wrapped packages, candy canes, gingerbread cookies, and straw ornaments made by disabled and senior citizens from across the United States. Mrs. Kennedy visited a local children’s hospital to give presents to sick children who would not be home for Christmas. The Kennedys generally traveled to Palm Beach for Christmas Day, where members of the large extended family often gathered. The children hung stockings and put on Christmas pageants, and all went to Christmas Mass together. In 1962 the personal gifts were chosen with great care. Knowing her love of French art, John Kennedy gave his wife a drawing by the French Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir. Knowing his love of the sea, Jacqueline Kennedy gave her husband a piece of scrimshaw carved with the Presidential Seal. Caroline wanted a doll, and John a helicopter.

Planning for Christmas 1963 was almost completed by November 21, when John and Jacqueline Kennedy flew to Texas for a three-day visit. The annual Christmas card was already printed—a color photograph of an eighteenth-century crèche that was displayed for the holidays in the East Room— and cards for thirty friends and supporters had been signed. John Kennedy had purchased a fur coverlet as a present for his wife, and he had learned to speak enough French to surprise her on Christmas Day.

The Kennedy Legacy

News of Kennedy’s death shocked Americans and shook the entire world. Leaders from more than ninety nations attended the funeral . It was too soon to speak of a legacy, but it is clear now that the Kennedys changed the character of the White House forever. John Kennedy’s daring and optimism inspired Americans to take pride in their achievements and to commit to public service. Kennedy was president in a dangerous time, and his leadership, both clear-eyed and calm, worked always toward peace.

President Kennedy's Casket Leaves the White House

President John F. Kennedy's flag-draped casket is seen carried on a horse-drawn caisson as his funeral procession leaves the White House, 1963.

After she left the White House, Jacqueline Kennedy sought the private life she had always wanted, for herself and her children. She returned only once , on February 3, 1971, privately and in secret, to view the official portraits by Aaron Shikler. “The day I always dreaded,” she wrote in a thank-you to First Lady Pat Nixon , “turned out to be one of the most precious ones I spent with my children.”

This was originally published on February 17, 2020

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John F Kennedy Biography

John F Kennedy

Born on May 1917, John F. Kennedy came from an illustrious political family; his father Joseph Kennedy was a leading member of the Democratic Party, and Joseph encouraged John F. Kennedy in his political ambitions after the war.

John graduated from Harvard after completing a thesis on “Appeasement in Munich.” His thesis was later converted into a successful book:  Why England Slept  (1940).


On Jack Paar Tonight Show

Before America joined the war, John joined the Navy and saw action throughout the Pacific theatre. In August 1943, his boat was rammed by Japanese destroyer Amagiri . John F Kennedy was later decorated for his outstanding bravery in rescuing a fellow crewman; he was also awarded the Purple Heart for an incident later in the war. Afterwards, Kennedy was modest about his actions, saying he felt a bit embarrassed as it resulted from a botched military action.

In 1946, he won a seat in Boston for the US House of Representatives, and in 1952 got himself elected to the US Senate, defeating the incumbent Republican.


In 1956, he was nearly chosen to be the Vice Presidential candidate for Adlai Stevenson. The national exposure raised his profile, and in 1960 he was selected to be the Democratic nomination for the Presidency.

In 1960, in a very tight election, John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated the much-fancied Republican, Richard Nixon. It was a memorable election with many millions glued to the TV in the pre-election hustings. John F. Kennedy came across very well on TV and looked more relaxed and professional on camera.


During his inauguration, JFK gave a memorable speech, where he famously encouraged citizens to help the nation become strong again.

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

He also called for greater internationalism.

“We will make clear that America’s enduring concern is for both peace and freedom; that we are anxious to live in harmony with the Russian people; that we seek no conquests, no satellites, no riches; that we seek only the day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

One of his early acts was to establish the Peace Corps – a volunteer programme run by the US government, it allowed young Americans to travel abroad and serve in developing countries. Kennedy hoped it would change foreign perceptions of Americans and give Americans a greater sense of international solidarity.

In 1961, after pressure from the CIA, Kennedy reluctantly ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. It was mostly led by Cuban exiles with minimal US support. They hope to overthrow the Communist Fidel Castro. However, the invasion was a failure leading to embarrassing negotiations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Despite been reluctant to go along with the policy, he accepted his responsibilty for its failure.

In 1962, figures in the US Department of Defense and Joint Chief of Staff proposed ‘Operation Northwoods’ which involved the CIA planning ‘false flag’ operations to stage attacks on US targets and claim Cuba was responsible – to create an opportunity to start a war against Cuba. Kennedy rejected the proposals but his reluctance to fully commit to removing Castro led to resentment amongst some CIA officers and Cuban exiles who felt Kennedy was insufficiently committed to removing Castro.

Cuban Missile Crisis

In 1962, the world came extraordinarily close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union moved missiles to Cuba, which was seen as very provocative (despite the US have nuclear weapons in NATO ally Turkey. Many in the American military were keen on a pre-emptive airstrike on the missile bases, but Kennedy chose a more cautious diplomatic approach.

Kennedy found a way to offer Khrushchev a way out without losing face. After several days of tense negotiation, an agreement was reached where the Soviet Union would remove missiles from Cuba in return for a US promise not to invade Cuba. The US also secretly removed weapons from Turkey to pacify the Soviets. His careful handling of the situation was widely praised. It led to the establishment of a direct Moscow-Washington hotline and for a few years, tensions between the Cold War antagonists were reduced.

During his brief presidency, John F. Kennedy oversaw an escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, which included sending 16,000 military advisers to the country. Later, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara said Kennedy considered pulling out of Vietnam in 1963 and believes that if Kennedy had survived, American involvement would have ended. Tapes showed that Kennedy’s former Vice-President, Lyndon Johnson later criticised Kennedy’s opinion that America should withdraw.

Civil rights


Meeting with leaders of March on Washington August 1963

Kennedy was a supporter of civil rights, but when elected in 1960, American society was deeply divided with entrenched opposition to the end of segregation and racism. Kennedy was torn between the need to retain the support of white southern democrat voters and a wish to promote civil rights. He supported voter registration drives, appointed African Americans to positions within his administration and promoted Thurgood Marshall to the Second Circuit court of Appeals in New York.

However, this was insufficient to tackle the much larger injustices. During the 1960s, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King became disappointed with JFK’s apparent non-committal stance, instead, they took non-violent direct action to highlight the injustice of segregation and civil rights leaders. This often led to shocking images – shown on tv, of police brutality against civil rights activists.  A turning point was 3 May 1963, where police in Birmingham unleased shocking brutality on protestors. This galvanised Kennedy to take more direct action sending federal marshals to the south in order to prevent racial violence getting out of hand. On 11 June 1963, Kennedy made a televised address to the nation where he spoke clearly in favour of the need to pass civil rights legislation

“The heart of the question is — whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities. Whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated… One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free….” – J.F. Kennedy

Although he did not live to see his promise enacted, it was a turning point in his presidency with a clear commitment made. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner


JFK’s handwriting

In June 1963, Kennedy made a memorable speech in West Berlin to a crowd of up to 450,000. He criticised the Soviets for their divisive wall and stated:

“Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

His speech was very well received by people living in West Berlin, who felt surrounded by the Berlin Wall and Communist East Germany. The Soviet authorities were less enamoured of his speech which they felt was confrontational.


John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and put on trial for his murder. However, before he could reach trial, Lee Harvey Oswald was himself killed by Jack Ruby. Lee Harvey Oswald always pleaded his innocence and many believe the assassination was a wider conspiracy. His death left a large void in American politics that was never adequately filled. Though Johnson did enact civil rights legislation and a form of welfare state, which many see as something Kennedy was keen to do. His brother Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 whilst seeking the democratic presidential nomination.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan . “ John F. Kennedy Biography ”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net , Last updated 25 March 2020. Originally published 11 Feb 2013.

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Quotes by J F Kennedy

“The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”

John F. Kennedy, Amherst College, Oct 26, 1963 – Source JFK Library, Boston, Mass.

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address, January 20, 1961

“War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”
“I believe in an America where the rights that I have described are enjoyed by all, regardless of their race or their creed or their national origin – where every citizen is free to think and speak as he pleases and write and worship as he pleases – and where every citizen is free to vote as he pleases, without instructions from anyone, his employer, the union leader or his clergyman.”

October 31, 1960. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Inaugural Address (1961)

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During his presidency, Kennedy gave many inspiring speeches; these speeches, rather than his legislative accomplishments, became his legacy. He did help to further the civil rights movement, but most of the legislature he initiated did not become law during his presidency. On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. His assassination raised questions of a possible conspiracy that are still being debated today. His life and death have been the subject of numerous books, documentaries and feature films.

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Read More About JFK in WWII The Truth About Devil Boats The Kennedy Curse in WWII Letter From MHQ, Spring 2011

Featured Article

John f. kennedy’s pt-109 disaster.

In April 1943, 25-year-old John F. Kennedy arrived in the Pacific and took command of the PT-109. Just months later, the boat collided with a Japanese ship, killing two of his men (John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, PC101).

The most famous collision in U.S. Navy history occurred at about 2:30 a.m. on August 2, 1943, a hot, moonless night in the Pacific. Patrol Torpedo boat 109 was idling in Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands. The 80-foot craft had orders to attack enemy ships on a resupply mission. With virtually no warning, a Japanese destroyer emerged from the black night and smashed into PT-109 , slicing it in two and igniting its fuel tanks. The collision was part of a wild night of blunders by 109 and other boats that one historian later described as “the most screwed up PT boat action of World War II.” Yet American newspapers and magazines reported the PT-109 mishap as a triumph. Eleven of the 13 men aboard survived, and their tale, declared the Boston Globe , “was one of the great stories of heroism in this war.” Crew members who were initially ashamed of the accident found themselves depicted as patriots of the first order, their behavior a model of valor.

The PT-109 disaster made JFK a hero. But his fury and grief at the loss of two men sent him on a dangerous quest to get even.

The Globe story and others heaped praise on Lieutenant (j.g.) John F. Kennedy, commander of the 109 and son of the millionaire and former diplomat Joseph Kennedy. KENNEDY’S SON IS HERO IN PACIFIC AS DESTROYER SPLITS HIS PT BOAT, declared a New York Times headline. It was Kennedy’s presence, of course, that made the collision big news. And it was his father’s media savvy that helped turn an embarrassing disaster into a tale worthy of Homer.

Airbrushed from this PR confection was Lieutenant Ken­nedy’s reaction to the accident. The young officer was deeply pained by the death of two of his men in the collision. Returning to duty in command of a new breed of PT boat, he lobbied for dangerous assignments and displayed a recklessness that worried fellow officers. Kennedy, they said, was hell-bent on redeeming himself and getting revenge on the Japanese.

Kennedy would later embrace the myths of PT- 109 and ride them into the White House. But in his last months in combat, he appeared to be a troubled young man trying to make peace with what happened that dark night in the Solomons.

Jack Kennedy was sworn in as an ensign on September 25, 1941. At 24, he was already something of a celebrity. With financial backing from his father and the help of New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, he had turned his 1939 Harvard thesis into Why England Slept , a bestseller about Britain’s failure to rearm to meet the threat of Hitler.

Getting young Jack into the navy took similar finagling. As one historian put it, Kennedy’s fragile health meant he was not qualified for the Sea Scouts, much less the U.S. Navy. From boyhood, he had suffered from chronic colitis, scarlet fever, and hepatitis. In 1940, the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School had rejected him as 4-F, citing ulcers, asthma, and venereal disease. Most debilitating, doctors wrote, was his birth defect—an unstable and often painful back.

When Jack signed up for the navy, his father pulled strings to ensure his poor health did not derail him. Captain Alan Goodrich Kirk, head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, had been the naval attaché in London before the war when Joe Kennedy had served as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. The senior Kennedy persuaded Kirk to let a private Boston doctor certify Jack’s good health.

biography of jfk

Kennedy eventually broke up with Arvad, but the imbroglio left him depressed and exhausted. He told a friend he felt “more scrawny and weak than usual.” He developed excruciating pain in his lower back. Jack consulted with his doctor at the Lahey Clinic in Boston, and asked for a six-month leave for surgery. Lahey doctors as well as specialists at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed chronic dislocation of the right sacroiliac joint, which could only be cured by spinal fusion.

Navy doctors weren’t so sure that Kennedy needed surgery. He spent two months at naval hospitals, after which his problem was incorrectly diagnosed as muscle strain. The treatment: exercise and medication.

During Jack’s medical leave, the navy won the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea . Ensign Kennedy emerged from his sickbed ferociously determined to see action. He persuaded Undersecretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, an old friend of his father, to get him into Midshipman’s School at Northwestern University. Arriving in July 1942, he plunged into two months of studying navigation, gunnery, and strategy.

During that time, Lieutenant Commander John Duncan Bulkeley visited the school. Bulkeley was a freshly minted national hero. As commander of a PT squadron, he had whisked General Douglas MacArthur and family from the disaster at Bataan, earning a Medal of Honor and fame in the book They Were Expendable . Bulkeley claimed his PTs had sunk a Japanese cruiser, a troopship, and a plane tender in the struggle for the Philippines, none of which was true. He was now touring the country promoting war bonds and touting the PT fleet as the Allies’ key to victory in the Pacific.

At Northwestern, Bulkeley’s tales of adventure inspired Kennedy and nearly all his 1,023 classmates to volunteer for PT duty. Although only a handful were invited to attend PT training school in Melville, Rhode Island, Kennedy was among them. Weeks earlier, Joe Kennedy had taken Bulkeley to lunch and made it clear that command of a PT boat would help his son launch a political career after the war.

Once in Melville, Jack realized that Bulkeley had been selling a bill of goods. Instructors warned that in a war zone, PTs must never leave harbor in daylight. Their wooden hulls could not withstand even a single bullet or bomb fragment. The tiniest shard of hot metal might ignite the 3,000-gallon gas tanks. Worse, their 1920s-vintage torpedoes had a top speed of only 28 knots—far slower than most of the Japanese cruisers and destroyers they would target. Kennedy joked that the author of They Were Expendable ought to write a sequel titled They Are Useless .

On April 14, 1943, having completed PT training, Kennedy arrived on Tulagi, at the southern end of the Solomon Islands. Fifteen days later, he took command of PT-109 . American forces had captured Tulagi and nearby Guadalcanal, but the Japanese remained entrenched on islands to the north. The navy’s task: Stop enemy attempts to reinforce and resupply these garrisons.

Except for the executive officer—Ensign Leonard Thom, a 220-pound former tackle at Ohio State— PT-109 ’s crew members were all as green as Kennedy. The boat was a wreck. Its three huge Packard motors needed a complete overhaul. Scum fouled its hull. The men worked until mid-May to ready it for sea. Determined to prove he was not spoiled, Jack joined his crew scraping and painting the hull. They liked his refusal to pull rank. They liked even more the ice cream and treats that the lieutenant bought them at the PX. Jack also made friends with his squadron’s commanding officer, 24-year-old Alvin Cluster, one of the few Annapolis graduates to volunteer for the PTs. Cluster shared Jack’s sardonic attitude toward the protocol and red tape of the “Big Navy.”

On May 30, Cluster took PT-109 with him when he was ordered to move two squadrons 80 miles north to the central Solomons. Here Kennedy made a reckless gaffe. After patrols, he liked to race back to base to snare the first spot in line for refueling. He would approach the dock at top speed, reversing his engines only at the last minute. Machinist’s Mate Patrick “Pop” McMahon warned that the boat’s war-weary engines might conk out, but Kennedy paid no heed. One night, the engines finally did fail, and the 109 smashed into the dock like a missile. Some commanders might have court-martialed Kennedy on the spot. But Cluster laughed it off, particularly when his friend earned the nickname “Crash” Kennedy. Besides, it was a mild transgression compared to the blunders committed by other PT crews, whom Annapolis grads called the Hooligan Navy. [See sidebar “ The Truth About “Devil Boats .”]

On July 15, three months after Kennedy arrived in the Pacific, PT-109 was ordered to the central Solomons and the island of Rendova, close to heavy fighting on New Georgia. Seven times in the next two weeks, 109 left its base on Lumbari Island, a spit of land in the Rendova harbor, to patrol. It was tense, exhausting work. Though PTs patrolled only at night, Japanese floatplane crews could spot their phosphorescent wakes. The planes often appeared without warning, dropped a flare, and then followed with bombs. Japanese barges, meanwhile, were equipped with light cannons far superior to the PTs’ machine guns and single 20mm gun. Most unnerving were the enemy destroyers running supplies and reinforcements to Japanese troops in an operation the Americans called the Tokyo Express. Cannons from these ships could blast the PTs into splinters.

On one patrol, a Japanese floatplane spotted the PT-109 . A near miss showered the boat with shrapnel that slightly wounded two of the crew. Later, floatplane bombs bracketed another PT boat and sent the 109 skittering away in frantic evasive maneuvers. One of the crew, 25-year-old Andrew Jackson Kirksey, became convinced he was going to die and unnerved others with his morbid talk. To increase the boat’s firepower, Kennedy scrounged up a 37mm gun and fastened it with rope on the forward deck. The 109 ’s life raft was discarded to make room.

Finally came the climactic night of August 1 and 2, 1943. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Warfield, an Annapolis graduate, was in charge at the base on Lumbari. He received a flash message that the Tokyo Express was coming out from Rabaul, the Japanese base far to the north on New Guinea. Warfield dispatched 15 boats, including PT-109 , to intercept, organizing the PTs into four groups. Riding with Kennedy was Ensign Barney Ross, whose boat had recently been wrecked. That brought the number of men aboard to 13—a number that spooked superstitious sailors.

Lieutenant Hank Brantingham, a PT veteran who had served with Bulkeley in the famous MacArthur rescue, led the four boats in Kennedy’s group. They motored away from Lumbari at about 6:30 p.m., heading northwest to Blackett Strait, between the small island of Gizo and the bigger Kolombangara. The Tokyo Express was headed to a Japanese base at the southern tip of Kolombangara.

A few minutes after midnight, with all four boats lying in wait, Brantingham’s radar man picked up blips hugging the coast of Kolombangara. The Tokyo Express was not expected for another hour; the lieutenant concluded the radar blips were barges. Without breaking radio silence, he charged off to engage, presuming the others would follow. The nearest boat, commanded by veteran skipper William Liebenow, joined him, but Kennedy’s PT-109 and the last boat, with Lieutenant John Lowrey at the helm, somehow got left behind.

Opening his attack, Brantingham was surprised to discover his targets were destroyers, part of the Tokyo Express. High-velocity shells exploded around his boat as well as Liebenow’s. Brantingham fired his torpedoes but missed. At some point, one of his torpedo tubes caught fire, illuminating his boat as a target. Liebenow fired twice and also missed. With that, the two American boats made a hasty retreat.

Kennedy and Lowrey remained oblivious. But they were not the only patrol stumbling around in the dark. The 15 boats that had left Lumbari that evening fired at least 30 torpedoes, yet hit nothing. The Tokyo Express steamed through Blackett Strait and unloaded 70 tons of supplies and 900 troops on Kolombangara. At about 1:45 a.m., the four destroyers set out for the return trip to Rabaul, speeding north.

Kennedy and Lowrey remained in Blackett Strait, joined now by a third boat, Lieutenant Phil Potter’s PT-169 , which had lost contact with its group. Kennedy radioed Lumbari and was told to try to intercept the Tokyo Express on its return.

With the three boats back on patrol, a PT to the south spotted one of the northbound destroyers and attacked, without success. The captain radioed a warning: The destroyers are coming. At about 2:30 a.m., Lieutenant Potter in PT-169 saw the phosphorescent wake of a destroyer. He later said that he, too, radioed a warning.

Aboard PT-109 , however, there was no sense of imminent danger. Kennedy received neither warning, perhaps because his radioman, John Maguire, was with him and Ensign Thom in the cockpit. Ensign Ross was on the bow as a lookout. Mc­Mahon, the machinist’s mate, was in the engine room. Two members of the crew were asleep, and two others were later described as “lying down.”

Harold Marney, stationed at the forward turret, was the first to see the destroyer. The Amagiri , a 2,000-ton ship four times longer than the 109 , emerged out of the black night on the starboard side, about 300 yards away and bearing down. “Ship at two o’clock!” Marney shouted.

Kennedy and the others first thought the dark shape was another PT boat. When they realized their mistake, Kennedy signaled the engine room for full power and spun the ship’s wheel to turn the 109 toward the Amagiri and fire. The engines failed, however, and the boat was left drifting. Seconds later, the destroyer, traveling at 40 knots, slammed into PT-109 , slicing it from bow to stern. The crash demolished the forward gun turret, instantly killing Marney and Andrew Kirksey, the enlisted man obsessed with his death.

In the cockpit, Kennedy was flung violently against the bulkheads. Prone on the deck, he thought: This is how it feels to be killed. Gasoline from the ruptured fuel tanks ignited. Kennedy gave the order to abandon ship. The 11 men leaped into the water, including McMahon, who had been badly burned as he fought his way to the deck through the fire in the engine room.

After a few minutes, the flames from the boat began to subside. Kennedy ordered everyone back aboard the part of the PT-109 still afloat. Some men had drifted a hundred yards into the darkness. McMahon was almost helpless. Kennedy, who’d been on the Harvard swim team, took charge of him and pulled him back to the boat.

Dawn found the men clinging to the tilting hulk of PT-109 , which was dangerously close to Japanese-controlled Kolombangara. Kennedy pointed toward a small bit of land about four miles away—Plum Pudding Island—that was almost certainly uninhabited. “We’ve got to swim to that,” he said.

They set out from the 109 around 1:30 p.m. Kennedy towed McMahon, gripping the strap of the injured man’s life jacket in his teeth. The journey took five exhausting hours, as they fought a strong current. Kennedy reached the beach first and collapsed, vomiting salt water.

Worried that McMahon might die from his burns, Kennedy left his crew near sundown to swim into Ferguson Passage, a feeder to Blackett Strait. The men begged him not to take the risk, but he hoped to find a PT boat on a night patrol. The journey proved harrowing. Stripped to his underwear, Kennedy walked along a coral reef that snaked far out into the sea, perhaps nearly to the strait. Along the way, he lost his bearings, as well as his lantern. At several points, he had to swim blindly in the dark.

Back on Plum Pudding Island, the men had nearly given their commander up for dead when he stumbled across the reef at noon the next day. It was the first of several trips that Kennedy made into Ferguson Passage to find help. Each failed. But his courage earned the lieutenant his men’s loyalty for life.

Over the next few days, Kennedy put up a brave front, talking confidently of their rescue. When Plum Pudding’s coconuts—their only food—ran short, he moved the survivors to another island, again towing McMahon through the water.

Eventually, the men were found by two natives who were scouts for a coastwatcher, a New Zealand reserve officer doing reconnaissance. Their rescue took time to engineer, but at dawn on August 8, six days after the 109 was hit, a PT boat pulled into the American base carrying the 11 survivors.

On board were two wire-service reporters who had jumped at the chance to report on the rescue of the son of Joseph Kennedy. Their stories and others exploded in newspapers, with dramatic accounts of Kennedy’s exploits. But the story that would define the young officer as a hero ran much later, after his return to the States in January 1944.

By chance, Kennedy met up for drinks one night at a New York nightclub with writer John Hersey, an acquaintance who had married one of Jack’s former girlfriends. Hersey proposed doing a PT-109 story for Life magazine. Kennedy consulted his father the next day. Joe Kennedy, who hoped to secure his son a Medal of Honor, loved the idea.

The 29-year-old Hersey was an accomplished journalist and writer. His first novel, A Bell for Adano , was published the same week he met Kennedy at the nightclub; it would win a Pulitzer in 1945. Hersey had big ambitions for the PT-109 article; he wanted to use devices from fiction in a true-life story. Among the tricks to try out: telling the story from the perspective of the people involved and lingering on their feelings and emotions—something frowned upon in journalism of the day. In his retelling of the PT-109 disaster, the crew members would be like characters in a novel.

Kennedy, of course, was the protagonist. Describing his swim into the Ferguson Passage from Plum Pudding Island, Hersey wrote: “A few hours before he had wanted desperately to get to the base at [Lumbari]. Now he only wanted to get back to the little island he had left that night….His mind seemed to float away from his body. Darkness and time took the place of a mind in his skull.”

Life turned down Hersey’s literary experiment—probably because of its length and novelistic touches—but the New Yorker published the story in June. Hersey was pleased—it was his first piece for the heralded magazine—but it left Joe Kennedy in a black mood. He regarded the relatively small-circulation New Yorker as a sideshow in journalism. Pulling strings, Joe persuaded the magazine to let Reader’s Digest publish a condensation, which the tony New Yorker never did.

This shorter version, which focused almost exclusively on Jack, reached millions of readers. The story helped launch Kennedy’s political career. Two years later, when he ran for Congress from Boston, his father paid to send 100,000 copies to voters. Kennedy won handily.

That campaign, according to scholar John Hellman, marks the “true beginning” of the Kennedy legend. Thanks to Hersey’s evocative portrait and Joe Kennedy’s machinations, Hellman writes, the real-life Kennedy “would merge with the ‘Kennedy’ of Hersey’s text to become a popular myth.”

Hersey’s narrative devoted remarkably few words to the PT-109 collision itself—at least in part because the writer was fascinated by what Kennedy and his men did to survive. (His interest in how men and women react to life-threatening pressures would later take him to Hiroshima, where he did a landmark New Yorker series about survivors of the nuclear blast.) Hersey also stepped lightly around the question of whether Kennedy was responsible.

The navy’s intelligence report on the loss of the PT-109 was also mum on the subject. As luck would have it, another Kennedy friend, Lieutenant (j.g.) Byron “Whizzer” White, was selected as one of two officers to investigate the collision. An All-America running back in college, White had first met Ken­nedy when the two were in Europe before the war—White as a Rhodes scholar, Kennedy while traveling. They had shared a few adventures in Berlin and Munich. As president, Kennedy would appoint White to the Supreme Court.

In the report, White and his coauthor described the collision matter-of-factly and devoted almost all the narrative to Kennedy’s efforts to find help. Within the command ranks of the navy, however, Kennedy’s role in the collision got a close look. Though Alvin Cluster recommended his junior officer for the Silver Star, the navy bureaucracy that arbitrates honors chose to put up Kennedy only for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, a noncombat award. This downgrade hinted that those high up in the chain of command did not think much of Kennedy’s performance on the night of August 2. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox let the certificate confirming the medal sit on his desk for several months.

It wasn’t until fate intervened that Kennedy got his medal: On April 28, 1944, Knox died of a heart attack. Joe Kennedy’s friend James Forrestal—who helped Jack win transfer to the Pacific—became secretary. He signed the medal certificate on the same day that he was sworn in.

In the PT fleet, some blamed “Crash” Kennedy for the collision. His crew should have been on high alert, they said. Warfield, the commander at Lumbari that night, later claimed that Kennedy “wasn’t a particularly good boat commander.” Lieutenant Commander Jack Gibson, Warfield’s successor, was even tougher. “He lost the 109 through very poor organization of his crew,” Gibson later said. “Everything he did up until he was in the water was the wrong thing.”

Other officers blamed Kennedy for the failure of the 109 ’s engine when the Amagiri loomed into sight. He had been running on only one engine, and PT captains well knew that abruptly shoving the throttles to full power often killed the engines.

There was also the matter of the radio warnings. Twice, other PT boats had signaled that the Tokyo Express was headed north to where the 109 was patrolling. Why wasn’t Kennedy’s radioman below deck monitoring the airwaves?

Some of this criticism can be discounted. Warfield had to answer for mistakes of his own from that wild night. Gibson, who was not even at Lumbari, can be seen as a Monday-morning quarterback. As for the radio messages, Kennedy’s patrol group was operating under an order of radio silence. If the 109 assumed that order banned radio traffic, why bother monitoring the radio?

There’s also a question of whether the navy adequately prepared Kennedy’s men, or any of the PT crews. Though the boats patrolled at night, no evidence suggests they were trained to see long distances in darkness—a skill called night vision. As a sailor aboard the light cruiser Topeka (CL-67) in 1945 and 1946, this writer and his shipmates were trained in the art and science of night vision. The Japanese, who were the first to study this talent, taught a cadre of sailors to see extraordinary distances. At the 1942 night battle of Savo Island, in which the Japanese destroyed a flotilla of American cruisers, their lookouts first sighted their targets almost two and a half miles away.

No one aboard PT-109 knew how to use night vision. With it, Kennedy or one of the others might have picked the Amagiri out of the night sooner.

However valid, the criticism of his command must have reached Kennedy. He might have shrugged off the putdowns of other PT skippers, but it must have been harder to ignore the biting words of his older brother. At the time of the crash, 28-year-old Joe Kennedy Jr. was a navy bomber pilot stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for deployment to Europe. He was tall, handsome, and—unlike Jack—healthy. His father had long ago anointed him as the family’s best hope to reach the White House.

Joe and Jack were bitter rivals. When Joe read Hersey’s story, he sent his brother a letter laced with barbed criticism. “What I really want to know,” he wrote, “is where the hell were you when the destroyer hove into sight, and exactly what were your moves?”

Kennedy never answered his brother. Indeed, little is known about how he rated his performance on the night of August 2. But there is evidence that he felt enormous guilt—that Joe’s questions struck a nerve. Ken­nedy had lost two men, and he was clearly troubled by their deaths.

After the rescue boats picked up the 109 crew, Kennedy kept to his bunk on the return to Lumbari while the other men happily filled the notebooks of the reporters on board. Later, according to Alvin Cluster, Kennedy wept. He was bitter that other PT boats had not moved in to rescue his men after the wreck, Cluster said. But there was more.

“Jack felt very strongly about losing those two men and his ship in the Solomons,” Cluster said. “He…wanted to pay the Japanese back. I think he wanted to recover his self-esteem.”

At least one member of the 109 felt humiliated by what happened in Blackett Strait—and was surprised that Hersey’s story wrapped them in glory. “We were kind of ashamed of our performance,” Barney Ross, the 13th man aboard, said later. “I had always thought it was a disaster, but [Hersey] made it sound pretty heroic, like Dunkirk.”

Kennedy spent much of August in sickbay. Cluster offered to send the young lieutenant home, but he refused. He also put a stop to his father’s efforts to bring him home.

By September, Kennedy had recovered from his injuries and was panting for action. About the same time, the navy finally recognized the weaknesses of its PT fleet. Work crews dismantled the torpedo tubes and screwed armor plating to the hulls. New weapons bristled from the deck—two .50-caliber machine guns and two 40mm cannons.

Promoted to full lieutenant in October, Jack became one of the first commanders of the new gunboats, taking charge of PT-59 . He told his father not to worry. “I’ve learned to duck,” he wrote, “and have learned the wisdom of the old naval doctrine of keeping your bowels open and your mouth shut, and never volunteering.”

But from late October through early November, Kennedy took the PT-59 into plenty of action from its base on the island of Vella Lavella, a few miles northwest of Kolombangara. Kennedy described those weeks as “packed with a great deal in the way of death.” According to the 59 ’s crew, their commander volunteered for the riskiest missions and sought out danger. Some balked at going out with him. “My God, this guy’s going to get us all killed!” one man told Cluster.

Kennedy once proposed a daylight mission to hunt hidden enemy barges on a river on the nearby island of Choiseul. One of his officers argued that this was suicide; the Japanese would fire on them from both banks. After a tense discussion, Cluster shelved the expedition. All along, he harbored suspicions that the PT-109 incident was clouding his friend’s judgment. “I think it was the guilt of losing his two crewmen, the guilt of losing his boat, and of not being able to sink a Japanese destroyer,” Cluster said later. “I think all these things came together.”

On November 2, Kennedy saw perhaps his most dramatic action on PT-59 . In the afternoon, a frantic plea reached the PT base from an 87-man Marine patrol fighting 10 times that many Japanese on Choiseul. Although his gas tanks were not even half full, Kennedy roared out to rescue more than 50 Marines trapped on a damaged landing craft that was taking on water. Ignoring enemy fire from shore, Kennedy and his crew pulled alongside and dragged the Marines aboard.

Overloaded, the gunboat struggled to pull away, but eventually it sped off in classic PT style, with Marines clinging to gun mounts. About 3 a.m., on the trip back to Vella Lavella, the boat’s gas tanks ran dry. PT-59 had to be towed to base by another boat.

Such missions took a toll on Jack’s weakened body. Back and stomach pain made sleep impossible. His weight sank to 120 pounds, and bouts of fever turned his skin a ghastly yellow. Doctors in mid-November found a “definite ulcer crater” and “chronic disc disease of the lower back.” On December 14, nine months after he arrived in the Pacific, he was ordered home.

Back in the States, Kennedy appeared to have lost the edge that drove him on PT-59 . He jumped back into the nightlife scene and assorted romantic dalliances. Assigned in March to a cushy post in Miami, he joked, “Once you get your feet upon the desk in the morning, the heavy work of the day is done.”

By the time Kennedy launched his political career in 1946, he clearly recognized the PR value of the PT-109 story. “Every time I ran for office after the war, we made a million copies of [the Reader’s Digest ] article to throw around,” he told Robert Donovan, author of PT-109: John F. Kennedy in World War II . Running for president, he gave out PT-109 lapel pins.

Americans loved the story and what they thought it said about their young president. Just before he was assassinated, Hollywood released a movie based on Donovan’s book and starring Cliff Robertson.

Still, Kennedy apparently couldn’t shake the deaths of his two men in the Sol­o­mons. After the Hersey story came out, a friend congratulated him and called the article a lucky break. Ken­nedy mused about luck and whether most success results from “fortuitous accidents.”

“I would agree with you that it was lucky the whole thing happened if the two fellows had not been killed.” That, he said, “rather spoils the whole thing for me.”

This story was originally published in MHQ Magazine. For more stories, subscribe here.  

President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Quandary

In the two years after he became president, John F. Kennedy faced no more daunting domestic issue than the tension between African Americans demanding equal treatment under the Constitution and segregationists refusing to end the South’s system of apartheid. While Kennedy tried to ease the problem with executive actions that expanded black voting, job opportunities and access to public housing, he consistently refused to put a major civil rights bill before Congress.

He believed that a combination of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans would defeat any such measure and jeopardize the rest of his legislative agenda, which included a large tax cut, federal aid to elementary and secondary education, and medical insurance for the elderly. His restraint, however, did little to appease Southern legislators, who consistently helped block his other reforms.

When a civil rights crisis erupted in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, Kennedy considered shifting ground and pressing for congressional action. In May, as black demonstrators, including many high school and some elementary school children, marched in defiance of a city ban, police and firemen attacked the marchers with police dogs that bit several demonstrators and high-pressure fire hoses that knocked marchers down and tore off their clothes. The TV images, broadcast across the country and around the world, graphically showed out-of-control racists abusing innocent young advocates of equal rights. Kennedy, looking at a picture on the front page of The New York Times of a dog lunging to bite a teenager on the stomach, said that the photo made him sick.

But Kennedy’s response was more than visceral. He saw an end to racial strife in the South as essential to America’s international standing in its competition with Moscow for influence in Third World countries. Moreover, Kennedy feared that as many as 30 Southern cities might explode in violence during the summer. The prospect of race wars across the South convinced him that he had to take bolder action. Burke Marshall, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, recalled that the president now saw Birmingham as representative of a pattern that “would recur in many other places.” JFK, Marshall said, “wanted to know what he should do—not to deal with Birmingham, but to deal with what was clearly an explosion in the racial problem that could not, would not, go away, that he had not only to face up to himself, but somehow to bring the country to face up to and resolve.”

Kennedy concluded that he now had to ask Congress for a major civil rights bill that would offer a comprehensive response to the problem. Kennedy told aides: “The problem is [that] there is no other remedy for them [the black rioters]. This will give another remedy in law. Therefore, this is the right message. It will remove the [incentive] to mob action.” On June 11, Kennedy made the decision to give a televised evening speech announcing his civil rights bill proposal. With only six hours to prepare, it was uncertain that his counselor and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, would be able to deliver a polished text in time. The president and his attorney general brother, Bobby, discussed what he should say in an extemporaneous talk should no text be ready. Five minutes before Kennedy went on television, Sorensen gave him a final draft, which Kennedy spent about three minutes reviewing.

Although Kennedy delivered part of the talk extemporaneously, it was one of his best speeches—a heartfelt appeal in behalf of a moral cause that included several memorable lines calling upon the country to honor its finest traditions. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he said. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities … One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free … Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise … The fires of frustration and discord are burning in every city, North and South, where legal remedies are not at hand … A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all … Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”

The following week, on June 19, Kennedy requested the enactment of the most far-reaching civil rights bill in the country’s history. He presented it against the backdrop of the murder of Medgar Evers, a leading black activist in Mississippi and veteran of the D-Day invasion, who was assassinated a day after the president’s June 11 speech by a rifle shot in the back at the door to his house in front of his wife and children.

The proposed law would ensure that anyone with a sixth-grade education would have the right to vote. It also would eliminate discrimination in all places of public accommodation—hotels, restaurants, amusement facilities and retail establishments. Kennedy described the basis for such legislation as clearly consistent with the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, the 15th Amendment’s right of citizens to vote regardless of race or color, and federal control of interstate commerce. In addition to expanded powers for the attorney general to enforce court-ordered school desegregation, he also asked for an end to job discrimination and expanded funds for job training, which could help African Americans better compete for good jobs, and the creation of a federal community relations service, which could work to improve race relations. But more than moral considerations were at work in Kennedy’s decision. Bobby and the president understood that unless they now acted boldly, African Americans would lose hope that the government would ever fully support their claims to equality and would increasingly engage in violent protest. The alternative to civil rights legislation was civil strife that would injure the national well-being, embarrass the country before the world and jeopardize the Kennedy presidency.

Yet Kennedy doubted that he could persuade Congress to act and believed that a planned march on the Capitol in August might do more harm than good. White House press leaks were already discouraging the idea when the National Urban League’s Whitney Young asked Kennedy at a meeting whether newspaper reports about the president’s opposition were accurate. Kennedy responded, “We want success in the Congress, not a big show at the Capitol.” He acknowledged that civil rights demonstrations had pushed the administration and Congress into consideration of a major reform bill but said, “now we are in a new phase, the legislative phase, and results are essential. The wrong kind of demonstration at the wrong time will give those fellows [on the Hill] a chance to say that they have to prove their courage by voting against us. To get the votes we need we have, first, to oppose demonstrations which lead to violence, and, second, give Congress a fair chance to work its will.”

When other civil rights leaders at the meeting explained that the August 28 march would occur regardless of White House support, the Kennedys tried to ensure its success. Worried about an all-black demonstration, which would encourage assertions that whites had no serious interest in a comprehensive reform law, Kennedy asked Walter Reuther, head of the United Automobile Workers, to arrange substantial white participation by church and labor union members. Kennedy also worried that a small turnout would defeat march purposes, but black and white organizers answered this concern by mobilizing more than 250,000 demonstrators. To ensure that as little as possible went wrong, Bobby directed his Civil Rights Division assistant attorney general to work full time for five weeks guarding against potential mishaps such as insufficient food and toilet facilities, or the presence of police dogs, which would draw comparisons to the Birmingham demonstrations. Moreover, winning agreement for a route running from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial precluded the demonstration at the Capitol that the president feared would antagonize Congress.

The march marked a memorable moment in a century-long crusade for black equality. Its distinctive features were not violence or narrow partisanship on behalf of one group’s special interest, but rather a dignified display of faith on the part of blacks and whites that America remained the world’s last best hope of freedom and equality for all; that the fundamental promise of American life—the triumph of individualism over collectivism or racial or group identity—might yet be fulfilled. Nothing caught the spirit of the moment better, or did more to advance it, than Martin Luther King Jr.’s concluding speech in the shadow of Lincoln’s memorial. In his remarks to the massive audience, which was nearly exhausted by the long afternoon of oratory, King had spoken for five minutes from his prepared text when he extemporaneously began to preach in the familiar cadence that had helped make him so effective a voice in the movement. “I have a dream that on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together … And when this happens, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”’ As the marchers dispersed, many walked hand in hand singing the movement’s anthem:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, We shall overcome, some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome some day.

Despite the success of the march, Kennedy remained uncertain about prospects for a bill of any kind. But he was genuinely impressed and moved by King’s speech. “I have a dream,” he greeted King at a White House meeting with march organizers that evening. (When King asked if the president had heard Walter Reuther’s excellent speech, which had indirectly chided Kennedy for doing more to defend freedom in Berlin than Birmingham, Kennedy replied, “Oh, I’ve heard him plenty of times.”) Almost euphoric over the size of the turnout and the well-behaved, dignified demeanor of the marchers, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph and Reuther expressed confidence that the House would pass a far-reaching bill that would put unprecedented pressure on the Senate to act. Kennedy offered a two-pronged defense of continuing caution. First, while recognizing “this doesn’t have anything to do with what we have been talking about,” he urged the organizers to exercise their substantial influence in the Negro community by putting an emphasis, “which I think the Jewish community has done, on educating their children, on making them study, making them stay in school and all the rest.” The looks of uncertainty, if not disbelief, on the faces of the civil rights leaders, toward a proposal that, at best, would take a generation to implement, moved Kennedy to follow on with a practical explanation for restraint in dealing with Congress. He read from a list prepared by Special Assistant for Congressional Relations Larry O’Brien of likely votes in the House and Senate. The dominance of negative congressmen blunted suggestions that Kennedy could win passage of anything more than a limited measure, and even that was in doubt.

Kennedy’s analysis of congressional resistance moved Randolph to ask the president to mount a “crusade” by going directly to the country for support. Kennedy countered by suggesting that the civil rights leaders pressure the Republican Party to back the fight for equal rights. He believed that the Republicans would turn a crusade by the administration into a political liability for the Democrats among white voters. And certainly bipartisan consensus would better serve a push for civil rights than a one-sided campaign by liberal Democrats. King asked if an appeal to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower might help enlist Republican backing generally, and the support of House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck in particular. Kennedy did not think that such an appeal would have any impact on Halleck, but he liked the idea of sending a secret delegation made up of religious clerics and businessmen to see Eisenhower. (Signaling his unaltered conviction that the “bomb throwers”—as Vice President Lyndon Johnson called uncompromising liberals—would do more to retard than advance a civil rights bill, Kennedy jokingly advised against including Reuther in the delegation that would see Ike.) Kennedy concluded the hour-and-10-minute meeting by promising nothing more than reports on likely votes in the House and the Senate. It was transparent to more than the civil rights leaders that Kennedy saw a compromise civil rights measure as his only chance for success.

Kennedy knew that it would take years and years to resolve race relations in the South, but he still believed that passage of a limited civil rights bill could be very helpful in buying time for the country to advance toward a peaceful solution of its greatest domestic social problem. But it was not to be. Between the end of September and the third week in November, House Democrats and Republicans—liberals and conservatives—entered into self-interested maneuvering over the administration’s civil rights proposals. He was so discouraged by late October over the bad news coming out of the House that he told Evelyn Lincoln, his secretary, that he felt like packing his bags and leaving. He also complained that the Republicans were tempted “to think that they’re never going to get very far with the Negroes anyway—so they might as well play the white game in the South.” Still, because he believed that it would be “a great disaster for us to be beaten in the House,” he made a substantial effort to arrange a legislative bargain. Kennedy’s intervention in a meeting with Democratic and Republican House leaders on October 23 produced a compromise bill that passed the Judiciary Committee by 20 to 14 on November 20. But the Rules Committee remained a problem. Larry O’Brien and Ted Sorensen asked the president how they could possibly get the bill past committee chairman Howard Smith, a Virginia segregationist who was determined to stop it from getting to the House floor in the 1963 session. Kennedy left for a political trip to Dallas on November 21, without providing an answer to their question.

The following day, the problem would be Lyndon Johnson’s.

This article was written by Robert Dallek and originally published in the August 2003 issue of American History Magazine.

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President John F. Kennedy: Eyewitness Accounts of the Events Surrounding JFK’s Assassination

The events that began unfolding around midday on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, have cast a long and lasting shadow across the intervening 40 years. In a matter of seconds a deadly deed would inflict trauma on the nation and alter the course of American history. It opened a tragedy-filled decade pocked by war, violent domestic unrest and a string of political assassinations.

An incredible 48 hours in Dallas—the president’s murder in broad daylight and the astonishing killing of his alleged assassin on live television—has spawned countless conspiracy theories. Unclear motives and a virtual labyrinth of peculiar circumstances, coincidences and seemingly inexplicable actions leave even the most rational inquisitor much room for speculation. In what is perhaps the most intensely and painstakingly examined murder in history, nearly every “fact” is fodder for debate, and every nuance leads critics to yet another “truth.” Doubts about the Warren Commission findings led to an extensive reexamination by a select congressional committee more than a decade later—whose own conclusions were hardly conclusive. The most certain fact is, for most Americans, the truth behind the events of November 22, 1963, remains shrouded in uncertainty.

However, a vast resource of eyewitness accounts offers an opportunity to experience—as nearly as possible—the realities of the moment. Recognizing human fallibility in the perception of any given event, these eyewitness accounts provide a mostly unvarnished real-time narrative from citizens, officials participating in the events and newsmen covering it. From within these accounts emerges a textured and detailed picture of those stunning hours, sometimes revealing bits of information and simple “whys” long submerged in volumes of testimony.

American History presents a chronology of those November days based almost entirely on eyewitness accounts and accompanied by searing imagery. Sworn testimony given to the Warren Commission and the magnificent oral histories collected and compiled by The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas form the foundation of the narrative. The museum’s curator, research team and staff were invaluable in providing the most relevant transcripts, granting access to their photo archives and giving guidance.

These accounts are sometimes highly descriptive of a horrific act inflicted on men in the presence of their loved ones and shocked spectators. Eyewitnesses struggle with the incongruity of the moment; the mundane mingles with the unimaginable. Heart-rending accounts tell also of horrible personal tragedy and of extraordinary courage and strength. Our intent is to convey — as accurately as possible from the view of those who were there—a true sense of the minutes and hours of the events that consumed the nation during four days in November 1963.

President and Mrs. Kennedy embark on a political fence-mending mission to Texas–where the Democratic Party was severely split–in preparation for the 1964 election. First stops: San Antonio, Houston and Forth Worth. Then on to Dallas and Austin.

Lee Harvey Oswald, working at the Texas School Book Depository just more than a month, alters his normal routine and catches a ride with a co-worker to nearby Irving, where he spends the night with his family. He says he needs to go this day to pick up a set of curtain rods for his apartment in Dallas.

MORNING IN FORT WORTH Congressman Jim Wright and Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr describe the morning in Fort Worth.

Jim Wright: I worked with what powers that be in Fort Worth to put on a good, effective breakfast meeting of the civic, business and commercial leadership of the community. We integrated it. We had representatives of the labor unions as well as of the professions and the large businesses. But even so, gosh, in those days, it was rare when the president of the United States was in your town….I said, “Look, in my hometown, I want a public meeting…we can go right outside the Texas Hotel where he’ll be spending the night, we will assemble the crowd in that big parking lot out there.”

Boy, the night before, it rained. At about 15 minutes before he was scheduled to appear, I looked out and people were already gathering in rain gear, some with umbrellas…and I thought: “Oh, what a mess. What a tragedy… what have we got him into? He’s got to get up on that flatbed trailer and speak to that crowd in the rain.” [Then] the clouds disappeared, the sun came through…bright, beautiful, sun-shining day. I thought, “The luck of the Irish.”

Waggoner Carr: There was a rally out in front of the Texas Hotel. That was followed by a breakfast at the hotel in the big dining room with a large crowd of people there, local people, and the president, after introducing Mrs. Kennedy and having a few remarks, made his speech. The president came by and shook my hand and told me how much he and Mrs. Kennedy appreciated the reception they were receiving in Texas….

OSWALD’S RIDE TO WORK Wesley Frazier recounts the ride to the Texas School Book Depository, departing at 7:20 a.m.

Wesley Frazier: I was sitting there eating my breakfast…mother just happened to glance up and saw this man, you know, who was Lee looking in the window for me and she said, “Who is that?” And I said, “That is Lee.” He just walked around there on the carport right there close to the door and so I told her I had to go, so I went in there and brushed my teeth right quick and come through there and I just walked on out and we got in the car….When I got in the car I have a kind of habit of glancing over my shoulder and so at that time I noticed there was a package laying on the back seat…and I said, “What’s the package, Lee?” And he said, “Curtain rods,” and I said, “Oh, yes, you told me you was going to bring some today.” …so I didn’t think any more about it….

I asked him did he have fun playing with them babies and he chuckled and said he did.

JFK’s MORNING IN FORT WORTH JFK calls Dallas Times Herald publisher James Chambers; Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, assigned to Mrs. Kennedy, describes the morning activity; Jim Wright on the flight to Dallas.

James Chambers: I was in my office about 8:15 or so, the phone rang, and it was the president. And he said, “Can you get me some Macanudo cigars?” He loved a good cigar occasionally. He says, “They don’t have any over here in Fort Worth.” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “Well, get me about a half a dozen.” I said, “Fine.” …and got him six Macanudo cigars that I was going to give him at the luncheon….

Agent Hill : I went to the fifth floor, I believe, where the president and Mrs. Kennedy were staying in the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth, at 8:15 in the morning. President Kennedy was to go downstairs and across the street to make a speech to a gathering in a parking lot.

About 9:25 I received word from Special Agent Duncan…that the president requested Mrs. Kennedy to come to the mezzanine, where he was about to speak. I took her down to where the president was speaking, remained with her during the speech and accompanied she and the president back up to the…fifth floor…remained on that floor until we left, went downstairs, got into the motorcade, and departed the hotel for the airport to leave Fort Worth for Dallas. We were airborne approximately 11:20.

Jim Wright: President Kennedy and I and John Connally had a discussion on Air Force One ….There had appeared in the Dallas News that morning a scurrilous ad calling him a traitor and other unflattering things….He had seen that. And I was irate. I thought it was a damn inhospitable thing to allow…that the paper should have screened it out. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but he was puzzled as to how to approach the Dallas News , how to be friends with them. They had written other unkind things. Mr. Dealey had written an unkind editorial about him, saying he ought to be riding Caroline’s tricycle or something like that.

ARRIVAL AT LOVE FIELD 11:40-11:45 A.M. The presidential party touches down in Dallas at 11:40 a.m. Agent Hill and WFAA cameraman Malcolm Couch describe the activity.

Agent Hill: There was a small reception committee at the foot of the ramp, and somebody gave Mrs. Kennedy some red roses….I walked immediately to the follow-up car and placed my topcoat, which is a raincoat, in the follow-up car, returning to where the president and Mrs. Kennedy were at that time greeting a crippled lady in a wheelchair.

Malcolm Couch: When Jackie and President Kennedy got off the plane, the press was supposed to stay back about 100 feet, but we didn’t. We broke and all ran up there, and then President Kennedy headed straight for the fence and started walking along the fence shaking hands with people….I was always a little quicker than other guys. I ran in front of him, got three feet in front of him and I got the neatest shots of him shaking hands with people….

MOTORCADE INTO DOWNTOWN DALLAS 11:45 A.M.–12:29 P.M. Motorcade recollections from the governor’s wife, Nellie Connally, in the presidential limousine; Agent Hill, directly behind the presidential limousine; and TV cameraman Couch and newspaper photographer Bob Jackson in a press pool convertible eight cars behind. Along the route are Dallas Detective Paul Bentley and spectator Glen Gatlin.

Agent Hill: Between Love Field and downtown Dallas, on the right-hand side of the street there was a group of people with a long banner which said, “Please, Mr. President, stop and shake our hands.” And the president requested the motorcade to stop, and he beckoned to the people and asked them to come and shake his hand, which they did. I jumped from the follow-up car and ran up to the left rear portion of the automobile with my back toward Mrs. Kennedy viewing those persons on the left-hand side of the street. Special Agent Ready, who was working the forward portion of the right running board, did the same thing, only on the president’s side, placed his back toward the car, and viewed the people facing the president. Agent in Charge Kellerman opened the door of the president’s car and stepped out on the street.

Detective Bentley: I was assigned to the corner of Main and Harwood, and I was at that particular location when the presidential parade passed and made a right turn onto Main. I was in plain clothes. As I first got over in front of the White Plaza Hotel the people of course were jamming the sidewalks….

Agent Hill: We didn’t really hit the crowds until we hit Main Street…where they were surging into the street. We had motorcycles running adjacent to both the presidential automobile and the follow-up car, as well as in front of the presidential automobile. Because of the crowds in the street, the president’s driver, Special Agent Greer, was running the car more to the left-hand side of the street…to keep the president as far away from the crowd as possible, and because of this the motorcycles on the left-hand side could not get past the crowd and alongside the car, and they were forced to drop back. I jumped from the follow-up car, ran up and got on top of the rear portion of the presidential automobile to be close to Mrs. Kennedy in the event that someone attempted to grab her from the crowd or throw something in the car.

Glen Gatlin: We had a very good view of the parade route. We were on the 12th floor, and so we were kind of watching [Commerce Street]. The crowds were enthusiastic, waving. Mrs. Kennedy had on a really cute pink outfit, and Gov. Connally and his wife were in the back seat. Gov. Connally always looked very, very handsome, and Kennedy, of course, was a guy that could have been a male model and sold clothes very nicely. He was doing his thing and waving, and the crowd was excited and it was just one of the best of times.

Malcolm Couch: A fella from Channel 4, KRLD…was next to me. We were both sitting on the back of the convertible as we got to the canyon of the big buildings downtown. I’ll never forget because there had been a lot of tension in Dallas politically. General [Edwin] Walker was in Dallas at the time. He was a radical right-winger. There had been some nasty statements from people in Dallas about Kennedy. As we drove along, we literally would point to buildings and say: “Boy, a sniper would sure get him from that one, what about this building over here? Perfect spot for them to get him.” That was part of the tension — that somebody would try to do something to Kennedy.

Bob Jackson : As we approached Main and Houston to make the turn, I had just unloaded my camera…one of my two cameras. It happened to be the one with the long lens because I had used it along the route more than the other one. We had prearranged for me to pass my film to a reporter who was standing at the corner [of] Main and Houston. So I unloaded the camera and put the film in an envelope. As we rounded the corner, I tossed it to Jim Featherstone, a reporter…he reached for it and the wind caught the envelope and blew it out of his hand or away from him, and he had to kind of chase it. We were kind of laughing, you know, at how he had to chase my film across the street, and we had already made the turn as this was taking place…onto Houston, which put our car directly facing the Book Depository.

Nellie Connally: We had just finished the motorcade through the downtown Dallas area. The people had been very responsive to the president and Mrs. Kennedy, and we were very pleased. In fact the receptions had been so good every place that…I could resist no longer. When we got past this area I did turn to the president and said, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”

SPECTATORS WAIT AT DEALEY PLAZA The end of the downtown portion of the motorcade was Dealey Plaza. Marilyn Sitzman arrives to find her boss, Abraham Zapruder, already there; Ernest Brandt recalls the crowd’s anticipation.

Marilyn Sitzman: As I came down that street Mr. Zapruder and a couple of the other women were standing up on the [grassy knoll]. The first part of that film shows me walking up towards him. And I got up there, he turned off the camera, and we’re talking about, well, where could he stand…because by that time, there’s quite a few people gathering. And we’d go look at this place, and we’d go look at that place. We went over to where that concrete pergola was, and we decided that would be the best place because, I says: “You can get up here. You’ll be above everybody. No matter how many people are down there, you won’t have anybody blocking your view.” And so, he said…he had vertigo, though. If he got up there, he’d get dizzy. So, he says, “You’ll have to stand behind me and hold onto me.” I says, “It’s no problem at all.” So we both got up there, and I stood behind him, and I held onto him.

Ernest Brandt: Everybody was quiet and just standing there waiting until the motorcade came along. And of course, when it did, Kennedy was kind of casually waving to people, Jackie sitting next to him, looking so pretty and prim. I noticed directly behind his car, very close behind his car, was the Secret Service limousine. It was an old Cadillac where they had put running boards on the sides so that they could stand. Two men standing on each side, on the running boards, and three or four of them inside the car.

SHOTS FIRED AT THE MOTORCADE 12:30 P.M. In the seconds after the motorcade turns left onto Elm St. and before the triple underpass, the assassin strikes. Jacqueline Kennedy in the president’s car and Vice President Lyndon Johnson two cars behind react. In addition to others in the press cars were Dallas Morning News photographer Tom Dillard and the president’s assistant press secretary, Malcolm Kilduff. Dealey Plaza eyewitnesses included Jean Lollis Hill, Malcolm Summers, Bill and Gayle Newman with their two children, and Abraham Zapruder with his Bell & Howell movie camera.

Nellie Connally: Then I don’t know how soon, it seems to me it was very soon, that I heard a noise, and not being an expert rifleman, I was not aware that it was a rifle. It was just a frightening noise, and it came from the right. I turned over my right shoulder and looked back, and saw the president as he had both hands at his neck.

Jim Wright: I heard the first shot. I thought it sounded like a rifle shot, but I couldn’t imagine that it could be a rifle shot. Then, I heard the second shot, and I thought: “It’s crazy. Someone is trying to fire a 21-gun salute with a rifle.” It was obviously a rifle shot, and obviously the shots were from the same rifle. That’s all I heard…but the timing of the third…the cadence was just off a fraction of a second enough to let me know, “Uh-oh, no, this isn’t a salute.”

Tom Dillard: …and it was loud, and I said, “They’re throwing torpedoes at him!” I guess, in my mind, those things we threw as kids that hit the sidewalk and exploded. Then, in a matter of a second and a half, another shot. Or two seconds, something like that. I said, “No, that’s rifle fire!”

Bob Jackson: We heard the first shot. Then, we heard two more shots closer together…I just looked straight up ahead of me because that’s the direction the sound came from, and I saw two black men leaning out of the window of the fifth floor, looking directly up above them. My eyes went on up to the next floor, and there was the rifle. I could see the rifle…part of the stock, and it being drawn in the window….

Tom Dillard: The third shot, I said, “My God, they’ve killed him!” Bob Jackson said, “There’s a guy with a rifle up in that window.” I said, “Where?” I had both cameras around my neck, loaded, focused, cocked…Bob says, “In that window up on that building right there, it’s that top window.” I shot a picture with the wide-angle camera. I said, “Which window?” He said, “It’s the one on the right, second from the top.” By that time, I had the 100mm camera up, shot a picture of that window….

Bob Jackson: The person behind it was not visible. There was no one standing in the window or anything looking out. He was obviously down low. Of course, I had an empty camera. I swung my camera up, too, just so I could see better with the long lens and zoomed in and no one was visible in the window. No one else in the car saw the rifle, and I don’t think I could have reacted fast enough to get a picture even if I had film in the camera. So then, the car proceeded on, rather jerkily, toward the intersection.

Jean Lollis Hill : We were standing on the curb, and I jumped to the edge of the street and yelled, “Hey, we want to take your picture!” to him. He was looking down in the seat — he and Mrs. Kennedy, and their heads were turned toward the middle of the car looking down at something in the seat, which later turned out to be the roses — and I was so afraid he was going to look the other way because there were a lot of people across the street, and we were, as far as I know, we were the only people down there in that area, and just as I yelled, “Hey!” to him, he started to bring his head up to look at me and just as he did the shot rang out. Mary took the picture and fell on the ground and of course there were more shots. She fell on the ground and grabbed my slacks and said, “Get down, they’re shooting!” And, I knew they were but I was too stunned to move….

Ernest Brandt: As soon at the limo got within view, I’m looking for Kennedy and Jackie. He was just kind of glancing at the crowd, his eyes kind of jumped along from one to another. He was kind of casually smiling…acknowledging the crowd and waving casually.

Nothing had happened by the time the limo was exactly opposite us. I was still watching Kennedy from the back. And of course, all I could see above the back seat was his shoulders, his neck, and head….I think the limousine was about 60 or 70 feet past us…it wasn’t moving real slow, but yet not real fast either…then bam! The first shot was fired, and boy, it just reverberated around the Dealey Plaza something terrible. Sounded like an elephant rifle to me. I thought it was a motorcycle backfire because there was a half a dozen of them on either side of Kennedy’s limousine. And that’s what I really thought because nothing in mind would have occurred to me that it was a rifle shot, see….I thought the first shot was a motorcycle backfire, and in conjunction with that thought, I thought he was just pretending. And that maybe he had thought, “Gee, I better duck.” You know, playfully, playing a little game in conjunction with the motorcycle backfire, but then when the second shot rang out, that canceled any thoughts I had of a motorcycle backfire. Then, in just a couple of seconds more, there was a second shot, then everybody…seemed to realize something was wrong then because Kennedy had by then already fallen over on Jackie’s shoulder.

Malcolm Summers: I was within five feet of the curb. They came around and then the first I heard was, I thought, was a firecracker…because the FBI, Secret Service people that was on the back of that car, they looked down at the ground….I think they thought it was a firecracker…I thought in my mind, well, what a heck of a joke, you know, to be playing like that. Then the car kept coming, and then the second shot rang out. And then the third…rang out. I saw Kennedy get hit. I heard Connally say, “They’re going to kill us all!” or “shoot us all.” …And then, I heard Jackie Kennedy scream out, “Oh, God! No, no, no!”

Bill Newman: We were there just a few moments… probably less than five minutes before the president’s limousine came down Main and made a right onto Houston. And I can remember hearing the crowds before seeing the cars or the motorcycle escorts. You could hear the cheers, the crowd, the noise…I felt an excitement, you know, because the president was getting close. I can remember seeing the car turn right onto Houston Street off of Main, going the one short block and turning left on Elm. When he was probably 150 or 200 feet away the first two shots rang out, and it was like a “Boom…Boom.”

Gayle Newman: I had no idea that it was gunfire. The first two noises sounded like firecrackers, and I think both of us…had the same impression…that’s really in bad taste, you know. Throwing firecrackers at the president’s car. But he seemed to be going along with the joke, you know. He sort of put his hands up and sort of was looking around the crowd, and you know, thoughts just sort of flash through your mind. And we thought…well, I did…boy, he’s got a good sense of humor, you know…to react like that.

Bill Newman: He straightened up and brought both arms up….But, as the car got closer to us, I felt that something was wrong. I remember seeing a bewildered look on President Kennedy’s face, and I can remember seeing Gov. Connally, and he was sort of crouched down and holding himself. I can remember his protruding eyes. I mean, his eyes looked like they were bugging out like he was in a state of shock. I could see the blood on his shirt. Just as all of this is going through my mind, the car passed directly in front of us.

Jim Wright: As we turned, heading west…we looked and saw pandemonium in the cars and Jacqueline Kennedy on her knees in the back seat, looking out behind, and we couldn’t imagine what was happening. Then, the car shot forward….As we passed the crowd on the grassy knoll, the look of sheer horror in their faces told me that they had just witnessed a traumatic event.

Marilyn Sitzman: When they started to make their first turn…turning into the street, he [Zapruder] said, “OK, here we go.” …That’s when I remember he started actually doing the filming. They turned the corner and they started coming down…and the first thing I remember hearing was what I thought was firecrackers because Kennedy threw his hands up, and I heard “bang, bang.” There could have been a third “bang,” I can’t swear to that one. But I know there were two “bangs” very close together, and I thought they were firecrackers because his arms were going into the air, and it was way off to my left and above. I’m just kind of like…”what a stupid thing to throw firecrackers,” and as they came down…the last shot that we heard was right in front of us and it was like the same sound…far off and to the left…but I saw his head open up….So, of course, by this time I knew it wasn’t firecrackers.

Abraham Zapruder: As the car came in line almost — I believe it was almost in line, I was standing up here and I was shooting through a telephoto lens….I heard the first shot, and I saw the president lean over and grab himself. Leaning toward the side of Jacqueline. For a moment I thought it was, you know, like you say, “Oh, he got me!” when you hear a shot—you’ve heard these expressions and then I saw—I don’t believe the president is going to make jokes like this, but before I had a chance to organize my mind, I heard a second shot and then I saw his head opened up and the blood and everything came out. I can hardly talk about it.

Agent Hill: As we came out of the curve and began to straighten up, I was viewing the area which looked to be a park. There were people scattered throughout the entire park. And I heard a noise from my right rear, which to me seemed to be a firecracker. I immediately looked to my right and, in so doing, my eyes had to cross the presidential limousine, and I saw President Kennedy grab at himself and lurch forward and to the left.

Malcom Kilduff: I heard this first noise, and Merriman Smith said, “What the hell was that?” And I said, “Well, it sounded to me like a firecracker.” And then, the second shot…by that time, I had noticed that Clint Hill…had jumped off the Secret Service follow-up car and was running towards the president’s car.

Jacqueline Kennedy: You know, there is always noise in a motorcade, and there are always motorcycles beside us, a lot of them backfiring. So I was looking to the left. I guess there was a noise, but it didn’t seem like any different noise really because there is so much noise, motorcycles and things. But then suddenly Gov. Connally was yelling, “Oh! No, no, no!”

Agent Hill: I jumped from the car, realizing that something was wrong, ran to the presidential limousine. Just about as I reached it, there was another sound, which was different than the first sound. I think I described it in my statement as though someone was shooting a revolver into a hard object — it seemed to have some type of an echo. I put my right foot on the left rear step of the automobile, and I had a hold of the handgrip, when the car lurched forward. I lost my footing, and I had to run about three or four more steps before I could get back up in the car.

Gayle Newman: As the car came closer…as it got directly in front of us, the third shot rang out and the side of his head was hit, and you saw bits of red flashing up and then some white matter come out of his head, and Mrs. Kennedy screamed, “Oh my God, no! They’ve shot Jack!”

Bill Newman: I remember a flash of white and then a flash of red, and President Kennedy going over across the car seat into Mrs. Kennedy’s lap and her hollering out, “Oh my God, no! They’ve shot Jack!” And I can remember her going back. I thought she was trying to get out of the car. I turned and said, “That’s it, Gayle! Hit the ground!” So, we hit the ground, covered our two children, thinking that we were in danger….

Jacqueline Kennedy: I was looking…to the left, and I heard these terrible noises. And my husband never made any sound. So I turned to the right. And all I remember is seeing my husband, he had this sort of quizzical look on his face, and his hand was up, it must have been his left hand. And just as I turned and looked at him, I could see a piece of his skull and I remember it was flesh colored. I remember thinking he just looked as if he had a slight headache. And I just remember seeing that. No blood or anything. And then he sort of…put his hand to his forehead and fell in my lap. And then I just remember falling on him and saying, “Oh, no, no, no!” I mean: “Oh, my God! They have shot my husband!” And “I love you, Jack!” I remember I was shouting. And just being down in the car with his head in my lap. And it just seemed an eternity.

You know, then, there were pictures later on of me climbing out the back. But I don’t remember that at all.

Malcolm Kilduff: And then I noticed that the Secret Service car and the president’s car had started to speed up. So we sped up in the pool car….This would be a normal operating procedure, to get the hell out of there in a big hurry. You know, it never even occurred to me that the president had been shot.

Lyndon Johnson: After we had proceeded a short way down Elm Street, I heard a sharp report. The crowd at this point had become somewhat spotty. The vice-presidential car was then about three car lengths behind President Kennedy’s car, with the presidential follow-up car intervening.

I was startled by the sharp report or explosion, but I had no time to speculate as to its origin because Agent Youngblood turned in a flash, immediately after the first explosion, hitting me on the shoulder, and shouted to all of us in the back seat to get down. I was pushed down by Agent Youngblood. Almost in the same moment in which he hit or pushed me, he vaulted over the back seat and sat on me. I was bent over under the weight of Agent Youngblood’s body, toward Mrs. Johnson and Sen. [Ralph W.] Yarborough.

I remember attempting to turn my head to make sure that Mrs. Johnson had bent down. Both she and Sen. Yarborough had crouched down at Agent Youngblood’s command. I heard other explosions. It was impossible for me to tell the direction from which the explosions came.

I felt the automobile sharply accelerate, and in a moment or so Agent Youngblood released me. I ascertained that Mrs. Johnson and Sen. Yarborough were all right. I heard Agent Youngblood speaking over his radio transmitter. I asked him what had happened. He said that he was not sure but that he had learned that the motorcade was going to the hospital.

AFTERMATH ON DEALEY PLAZA The minutes after the shooting are filled with horror and confusion.

Malcolm Summers: There was a motorcycle cop… coming along on the side leading the caravan there, the car, and he laid down his bike right in front of me and looked straight in my direction like he was going to pull his gun. I thought somebody behind me was doing the firing, and because I thought that, well, I fell down, I hit the ground…. And then…he jumped back on his bike, and then he took off along with the car….I stayed there just…a few seconds…until all the commotion went by, the other cars, a lot of screaming, a lot of going on….lots of people was running around…running down toward the…railroad track down there, and I, again figured—the power of suggestion—I thought, they saw him and they’re catching him down there. So, I immediately ran across the street, too, and I was going to go down there and see them catch him, and I hope hang him or whatever because I was that mad….

Bill Newman: We were just on the ground probably two…three…four minutes. We wanted to be sure it was over. I can remember the people running up on the grassy knoll and going back towards the parking lot between the School Book Depository and the grassy knoll. I thought these people were out of their minds. Jerry Haynes [WFAA reporter] and another gentleman…came running over to us, and we had stood up by this time. They asked us what we saw, and we told them. And they said, “Would you go with us over to WFAA studios?” And we said, “Sure.” So we started walking in that direction….He just walked up to a man in a car and said: “These people saw the president get shot. Would you carry us to WFAA?” We jumped in this stranger’s car and went to WFAA. We were put on the air shortly thereafter.

Abraham Zapruder: There were police running right behind me. Of course, they didn’t realize yet, I guess, where the shot came from….I didn’t even remember how I got down from that abutment but there I was, and I was walking back toward my office and screaming: “They killed him! They killed him!” and the people that I met on the way didn’t even know what happened, and they kept yelling: “What happened? What happened?” It seemed that they had heard a shot but they didn’t know exactly what had happened as the car sped away, and I kept on just yelling: “They killed him! They killed him!” And finally I got to my office and my secretary—I told her to call the police or the Secret Service…I just went to my desk and stopped there until the police came, and then we were required to get a place to develop the films. I knew I had something, I figured it might be of some help—I didn’t know what.

Marilyn Sitzman: When we got down, Mr. Zapruder apparently went directly back to the office. He didn’t even stop. I ran down the slope. There were three men in suits running up and that’s who I met. And I said: “They killed him! They killed him! And my boss has it on film!” And that’s when they got interested in me, when I said that.

Gayle Newman: I was just numb…I was just trembling. I couldn’t hardly remember what my name was. I was worried about the children. In fact, [at WFAA studio] Julie Benell, they interrupted her cooking show and she was cooking a Hormel Cure Eighty-one ham. They had just been introduced to the market. And I was just so nervous, they took me off…with the children, and Julie Benell fixed both of the boys a ham sandwich and tried to calm me down with coffee, and I didn’t drink coffee. I was just numb….

POLICE ENCOUNTER OSWALD 12:32 P.M. Police immediately rush to the School Book Depository. Building manager Roy Truly, who was standing in front of the building at the time of the shooting, recounts what took place.

Roy Truly: …everybody was screaming and hollering. Just moments later I saw a young motorcycle policeman run up to the building, up the steps to the entrance of our building. He ran right by me. And he was pushing people out of the way. I believe I caught up with him inside the lobby of the building, or possibly the front steps. I remember it occurred to me that this man wants on top of the building. He doesn’t know the plan of the floor. I ran in with him. As we got in the lobby, almost on the inside of the first floor, this policeman asked me where the stairway is. And I said, “This way.” And I ran diagonally across to the northwest corner of the building.

[On the second floor] I saw the officer almost directly in the doorway of the lunchroom facing Lee Harvey Oswald. He was at the front of the lunchroom, not very far inside….When I reached there, the officer had his gun pointing at Oswald….He didn’t seem to be excited or overly afraid or anything. He might have been a bit startled, like I might have been if somebody confronted me. But I cannot recall any change in expression of any kind on his face. The officer turned this way and said, “This man work here?” And I said, “Yes.” Then we left Lee Harvey Oswald immediately and continued to run up the stairways.

THE MOTORCADE HEADS TO PARKLAND Once agents realize the president has been wounded, the limousine speeds off for Parkland Memorial Hospital at the orders of Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Roy Kellerman.

Agent Kellerman: I just leaned sideways to [the driver] and said: “Let’s get out of here! We are hit!” I have driven that car many times, and I never cease to be amazed even to this day with the weight of the automobile plus the power that is under the hood; we just literally jumped out of the goddamn road.

REPORT OF SHOOTING REACHES THE TRADE MART Just minutes from Dealey Plaza, the Trade Mart is filled with luncheon guests awaiting the president. TV reporter Eddie Barker covers the event live.

Eddie Barker: It was going to be quite an affair. All of the dignitaries in the city were going to be on hand for the speech. I was there on that balcony at the Trade Mart, waiting for the president to come there to the luncheon.

One of the floor men who was up on the balcony there with me said, “They want to talk to you in the truck.”…One of the engineers in the truck said: “Hey, something’s happened. They’re headed for the airport. They didn’t stop. The motorcade just went by.” And that was the first that I knew, and by then, I was getting a message from the newsroom that there had been shots fired. And that’s when I then went on the air out there at the Trade Mart.

The gist of [what I said] was that…shots had been fired, and that the motorcade had gone by, it did not stop. Then I really got into just an endless narrative…I had to stay on the air….

THE MOTORCADE REACHES PARKLAND 12:36 P.M. Agent Kellerman is in the front seat; Agent Hill is sprawled atop the president and Mrs. Kennedy. Among others, Special Agent William Greer and motorcycle policeman Willie Price help take President Kennedy into the emergency room.

Agent Kellerman: As we arrived at the hospital I immediately got out of the car. I yelled to the agents, “Go get us two stretchers on wheels.” I turned right around to the back door and opened it. By this time Mrs. Connally had raised up, and the governor is lying in her lap, face up. His eyes are open and he is looking at me, and I am fairly sure he is alive. I said, “Governor, don’t worry; everything is going to be all right.” And he nodded his head….By this time the stretcher is there. I get inside on one side of him, and Agent Hill on the other. Somebody is holding his feet, and we remove the governor and put him on the stretcher and they take him in. We then get in and help Mrs. Connally out. Our next move is to get Mrs. Kennedy off from the seat, which was a little difficult, but she was removed. Then Mr. Hill removed his coat and laid it over the president’s face and shoulder.

Willie Price: The president was laying forward. I got a good look at him and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt it was him. One of them told me I could help them. I was to help get the president out…I was going to catch hold of him and help pull him out, and one put a coat in my hands and said, “Put this around his head.” And by the time I got around to put that coat around his head, Mrs. Kennedy walked between me and his head and she put her hands on the back of his head, and then I saw this Secret Service man and I…I started to push her hands away, but I got to thinking, those guys might be a little gun-happy, so therefore, I better let them do it.

I knew the back of his head was blown out, and…I felt like she shouldn’t be getting her hands under there because there wouldn’t be nothing but blood….When I motioned to [a Secret Service man]…about Mrs. Kennedy, he pushed her hands down and then told Mrs. Lincoln, I believe who was the secretary of the president…”You take care of her. She’s in shock,” he says. “And don’t get away from her.” I noticed that she wiped her hands off on her clothes when she…came away from his head.

Agent Hill: The right rear portion of his head was missing. It was lying in the rear seat of the car. His brain was exposed. There was blood and bits of brain all over the entire rear portion of the car. Mrs. Kennedy was completely covered with blood. There was so much blood you could not tell if there had been any other wound or not….

I removed [my coat] and covered the president’s head and upper chest. [Gov. Connally] was conscious. There was a large amount of blood in the lower abdominal area. He was helped from the automobile to the stretcher. He was wheeled immediately into, I think, emergency room No. 2.

Agent Greer: When I pulled into the ambulance entrance there were some people there on the right-hand side with these stretchers that they had rushed out….There was a great deal of confusion because everyone was trying to help.

I helped…take the stretcher that he was on into the emergency room. It is on wheels…and I stayed inside the door of the emergency room most of the time while the doctors were working on the president’s body.

I was inside the door. I kept the door closed most of the time, let doctors and nurses in and out while they were working on him. Mrs. Kennedy was outside the door. They got her a chair out there for a little while, and then she insisted on coming in, and she got in the corner for a little while and stayed there a little while.

Agent Hill: I accompanied [the president] and Mrs. Kennedy to the emergency room…but it was so small, and there were so many people in there that I decided I had better leave and let the doctors take care of the situation.

Special Agent in Charge Kellerman came outside and said, “Get the White House.” I asked Special Agent Lawson for the local number in Dallas of the White House switchboard, which he gave to me. I called the switchboard in Dallas, asked for the line to be open to Washington and remain open continuously. And then I asked for Special Agent in Charge Jerry Behn’s office. Mr. Kellerman came out of the emergency room about that time, took the telephone, and told Special Agent in Charge Behn that we had had a double tragedy; that both Gov. Connally and President Kennedy had been shot. Shortly thereafter Mr. Kellerman came out of the emergency room and said, “Clint, tell Jerry this is unofficial and not for release, but the man is dead.” I talked to the attorney general [Robert Kennedy] and told him that his brother had been seriously wounded; that we would keep him advised as to his condition.

Agent Kellerman: I walked into this center area of this emergency room looking for a telephone. There is a little doctor’s office and I walked inside, and I am alone at that time, except one medic who was in there. By that time a medic comes into the room from President Kennedy’s section, and he asks if anybody knows the blood type of President Kennedy. We all carry it. I produce mine.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY IN PARKLAND Doctors and emergency personnel feverishly work on the president, including Dr. Charles Carrico, Dr. Marion Jenkins and Dr. Robert McClelland.

Dr. Carrico: His color was blue-white, ashen. He had slow agonal respiration, spasmodic respirations without any coordination. He was making no voluntary movements. His eyes were open, pupils were seen to be dilated and later were seen not to react to light. This was the initial impression. He had no palpable pulse. No voluntary movements, only the spasmodic respirations.

After these initial observations we opened his shirt, coat, listened very briefly to his chest, heard a few sounds, which we felt to be heartbeats, and then proceeded with the remainder of the examination. From a medical standpoint, I suppose he was still alive in that he did still have a heartbeat.

Dr. Jenkins: As the resuscitative maneuvers were begun, such as chest cardiac massage, there was with each compression of the sternum a gush of blood from the skull wound, which indicated there was massive vascular damage in the skull and the brain, as well as brain tissue damage, and we recognized by this time that the patient was beyond the point of resuscitation, that he was in fact dead, and this was substantiated by getting a silent electrical pattern on the electrocardiogram….

FIRST BROADCAST REPORT THAT KENNEDY IS DEAD 12:40 P.M. At the Trade Mart, TV reporter Eddie Barker receives an early report that the president is dead.

Eddie Barker: I was going on with this endless chatter, and this doctor that I recognized came up to me and just kind of whispered in my ear, he said, “Eddie, he’s dead.” …I said, “How do you know?” And he said, “Well, I just called the emergency room at Parkland. He’s D.O.A.” Well, that was good enough for me, and I then said words to the effect, “I’ve just been told by a highly reliable source that the president’s dead.” And, unbeknownst to me, the broadcast was being carried by CBS because this was the only pick-up in town, and they picked it up and put it on the air.

I found out that as soon as I said that they immediately took it back to New York, and Cronkite, my dear friend Walter, said: “You know, that ain’t us, folks. That’s that hotshot down there in Dallas saying he’s dead. It’s not CBS saying he’s dead.”

POLICE BROADCAST SUSPECT’S DESCRIPTION 12:45 P.M. The description was derived from eyewitness reports at Dealey Plaza.

Police Dispatcher: Attention all squads. Attention all squads. At Elm and Houston, reported to be an unknown white male, approximately 30, slender build, height 5 feet 10 inches, 165 pounds. Reported to be armed with what is believed to be a .30-caliber rifle.


Dr. Jenkins: However, for a period of minutes…after we knew he was dead, we continued attempted resuscitative maneuvers….I think as we pronounced the president dead, those in attendance who were there just sort of melted away. When we saw the two priests who arrived in the corridor outside the emergency room, I went to the door and asked one of those, what is the proper time to declare one dead. As I remember now, he said, “The time that the soul leaves the body…is not at exactly the time that medical testimony might say that death was declared.” There would be a period of time and so, if we wished to declare him dead at that time, they would still have the final rites.

…Mrs. Kennedy had come back into the room, and most of the people were beginning to leave because they felt like this was such a grief-stricken and private affair that they should not be there….I was still there as the rites were performed, and a prayer was said.

Dr. McClelland: About the time that Dr. Baxter and I were gonna walk around the head of the gurney and leave the room behind everybody else, the door came open, and Father Hubert came in…so we just kind of melted back up against the wall…while he gave the president his last rites.

[Mrs. Kennedy] came in and leaned over and asked him, “Have you given him the last rites?” And he said, “I’ve given him conditional last rites.” She grimaced a little bit then, as if she didn’t much like to hear that. She put it [a ring] on one of his fingers, and I don’t know which one she took it off of and which one she put it on, and then she turned and walked slowly out of the room. He had already been covered up with a sheet at that time…his right foot was sticking out from underneath the sheet….And as she passed by, she kind of, almost as an afterthought, she leaned over and kissed his foot, and then she walked out of the room.

OSWALD MISSING FROM DEPOSITORY 1:03 P.M. Police begin to scour the building, and manager Roy Truly discovers Oswald is gone.

Roy Truly: Some of my boys were over in the west corner of the shipping department, and there were several officers over there taking their names and addresses and so forth. I noticed that Lee Oswald was not among these boys.

Mr. Campbell is standing there, and I said: “I have a boy over here missing. I don’t know whether to report it or not.” Because I had another one or two out then. I didn’t know whether they were all there or not. He said, “What do you think?” And I got to thinking. He said, “Well, we better do it anyway.” …I picked the phone up then and called Mr. Aiken, at the warehouse, and got the boy’s name and general description and telephone number and address at Irving. I knew nothing of his Dallas address. I didn’t know he was living away from his family.

Deputy Chief [George] Lumpkin of the Dallas Police Department was standing a few feet from me. I told [him] that I had a boy missing over here, “I don’t know whether it amounts to anything or not.” And I gave him his description. And he says: “Just a moment. We will go tell Captain Fritz.”

THE SNIPER’S NEST IS FOUND 1:10 P.M . Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Luke Mooney describes finding the 6th-floor sniper’s nest.

Deputy Mooney: I went straight across to the southeast corner of the building, and I saw all these high boxes. And I squeezed between two…I saw the expended shells, and the boxes that were stacked up looked to be a rest for the weapon. There was a very slight crease in the box, where the rifle could have lain — at the same angle that the shots were fired from.

I didn’t lay my hands on anything, because I wanted to save every evidence we could for fingerprints. So I leaned out the window, the same window from which the shots were fired, looked down, and I saw Sheriff Bill Decker and Captain Will Fritz. So I hollered….I whistled a time or two before I got anybody to see me. I told him to get the crime lab officers in route, that I had the location spotted. So I stood guard to see that no one disturbed anything until Captain Will Fritz approached with his group of officers.

POLICE OFFICER J.D. TIPPIT IS SHOT 1:15 P.M. Witness Helen Markham describes the shooting, and Warren Reynolds and Detective Paul Bentley recall the pursuit of the suspect.

Helen Markham: I seen this man on the opposite side, across the street from me. He was almost across Patton Street….walking up 10th, away from me. I noticed a police car coming. He was driving real slow, almost up to this man. This man kept walking, and the police car going real slow now, real slow.

The man stopped. I saw the man come over to the car very slow….

I didn’t think nothing about it; you know, the police are nice and friendly. In a few minutes…this man put his arms up, leaned over, and he drew back, and he stepped back about two steps.

The policeman calmly opened the car door, very slowly, wasn’t angry or nothing, he calmly crawled out of this car. Just as the policeman got…towards the front of the car…even with the wheel on the driver’s side, this man shot the policeman. He fell to the ground, and his cap went a little ways out on the street.

The man, he just walked calmly, fooling with his gun. Come back towards me, turned around and went back….towards Patton. When he saw me he looked at me, stared at me. I put my hands over my face, closed my eyes. I gradually opened my fingers, and I opened my eyes, and when I did he started off in kind of a little trot.

Warren Reynolds: Our office is up high where I can have a pretty good view of what was going on. When I heard the shots, I went out on this front porch. I saw this man coming down the street with the gun in his hand. He turned the corner of Patton and Jefferson, going west, and put the gun in his pants and took off, walking.

I followed him up the street behind the service station and lost him….I went back there and looked up and down the alley and didn’t see him and looked through the cars and still didn’t see him.

When the police got there…I was trying to assure them that he was still there close. And they got word that he was down at a library, which was about three blocks down the street on the opposite side of the street. And every one of them left to go there. So when they left, well, I did too. I didn’t know this man had shot a policeman. I wouldn’t probably be near as brave if I had known that.

Detective Bentley: The first thing I saw was Officer Tippit’s patrol car sitting there with quite a bit of blood on the pavement where Tippit had fallen. At that particular time there were several officers talking to various witnesses who had seen the shooting….We were there only five or 10 minutes when we had heard lots of reports that the suspect had been seen in the public library there at Marcellus and Jefferson. Also a report that he had been seen entering the Texas Theatre.

THE RIFLE IS FOUND 1:22 P.M. Police locate the rifle on the 6th floor of the Depository, and Police Lieutenant Carl Day inspects for fingerprints.

Deputy Mooney: By that time there was a number of officers up there….And we were searching, trying to find the weapon at that time.

I was about 10 or 15 steps at the most from Officer Boone when he hollered, “Here is the gun!” I stepped over there…I had to look twice before I actually saw the gun laying in there…stuck between these cartons in an upright position.

Lieutenant Day: We were working on the fingerprints and so forth of the area where the shooting occurred. We found one good palm print on top of that box, which Oswald was sitting on.

We collected the three spent cartridges, cases. I used the powder on them and didn’t find any prints there, which is not unusual on a cartridge case or bullet….While we were working with that, Captain Fritz sent word for me to come to the…northwest corner of the building….They had found the gun. So we took our camera and went over there and made several shots of that.

It had a telescopic sight, but there was no name on that gun. Visually you could tell it was what we called a wartime finish. And this gun was a very rough finish, the stock was rough. It wasn’t the best place to find a fingerprint to start with.

After we got the pictures taken, I reached down and picked the rifle up. It had a leather strap on it. It was apparent that you could not get a fingerprint off that leather strap — it was entirely too rough. I picked it up by the leather strap. I took a little powder…and put it on the knob of the bolt, that you pull the bolt back to eject the shell. It was too small to do anything with, there was no print there. I held the gun by the strap, and Captain Fritz got a hold of that bolt and pulled it back and opened it, and a live round fell out. It was ready to fire again….I told Captain Fritz this is not the place to try to work on this gun. I took it back to the City Hall and locked it up.

LBJ IS INFORMED KENNEDY IS DEAD AND RETURNS TO LOVE FIELD Before it is officially announced, Johnson is informed he is now president and must immediately return t o Air Force One .

Malcolm Kilduff: Before 1 o’clock, I went to [Kennedy aide] Kenneth O’Donnell, and I said, “Kenny, we’re going to have to announce the president’s death.” And he said, “Hell,” he said, “don’t ask me. Go ask Johnson.” So, I went across the hall into a trauma room…and I walked in and I didn’t know what to call him. I didn’t know Lyndon Johnson that well. I had seen him around the White House. He knew me by name….But I suddenly realized I didn’t know what to call him. The situation, de facto, he was the president. I just said, “Mr. President,” and Lady Bird just kind of screamed. And apparently…when I said that to him was the first solid information that he had that he was the de facto president. I said, “I’m going to have to announce President Kennedy’s death.”

And he said: “Well….We don’t know what kind of a conspiracy this might be….But I think Bird and I ought to get out of here and back to Air Force One before you make the announcement.” And I said, “All right.” So, he said, “Come on….Let’s go on back to the plane.”

Lyndon Johnson: When Mr. [Kenneth] O’Donnell told us to get on the plane and go back to Washington, I asked about Mrs. Kennedy. O’Donnell told me that Mrs. Kennedy would not leave the hospital without the president’s body, and urged again that we go ahead and take Air Force One and return to Washington. I did not want to go and leave Mrs. Kennedy in this situation. I said so, but I agreed that we would board the airplane and wait until Mrs. Kennedy and the president’s body were brought aboard the plane. We left the room and were ushered by a cordon of agents to cars which were awaiting us.


Malcolm Kilduff: I received word that he [Johnson] was back [at Air Force One ], and at approximately 1:31, I went ahead and made the announcement….The most difficult thing was to say that John Kennedy was dead….And I didn’t get into it clean because I guess it’s sort of like telling somebody that a close friend has died. It’s hard to come out….you don’t want to say it because once you’ve said it….That by saying it, it’s so, and if I don’t say it, it won’t be so. I have no recollection of the press in front of me.


Lyndon Johnson: We were ushered into the private quarters of the president’s plane. It didn’t seem right for John Kennedy not to be there. I told someone that we preferred for Mrs. Kennedy to use these quarters. I called Robert Kennedy….Despite his shock, he discussed the practical problems at hand — problems of special urgency because we did not at that time have any information as to the motivation of the assassination or its possible implications. The attorney general said that he would like to look into the matter of whether the oath of office as president should be administered to me immediately or after we returned to Washington, and that he would call back. I thereafter talked with McGeorge Bundy and Walter Jenkins, both of whom urged that the return to Washington should not be delayed. I told them I was waiting for Mrs. Kennedy and for the president’s body to be placed on the plane, and would not return prior to that time. Our conversation was interrupted to allow the attorney general to come back on the line. He said that the oath should be administered to me immediately, before taking off for Washington, and that it should be administered by a judicial officer of the United States.

I thought of Sarah Hughes, an old friend who is judge of the U.S. District Court in Dallas. We telephoned Judge Hughes’ office. She was not there, but she returned the call in a few minutes and said she would be at the airplane in 10 minutes.

OSWALD’S CAPTURE AND ARREST 1:50 P.M. Detective Paul Bentley describes the arrest and transport of the suspect.

Detective Bentley: Captain Talbert and I went to the Texas Theatre. I got out in the front and immediately went into the theater and identified myself….

I did not stop at the cashier booth in the front….I went right into the ticket taker, and this person advised me that the suspect had been seen going to the balcony, so I first went to the mezzanine which was the first flight of stairs…and I checked the men and women’s restrooms and office space on the mezzanine and then went to the balcony. I did have my revolver in my hand at that particular time….Once I got to the balcony I could see several officers coming in from the stage or back entrance. I had advised the projectionist to turn on the house lights…the movie was cut off.

After checking the people in the balcony…there were only three or four people there, about that time a uniformed officer came up from the other side, and I advised him to take the names of the people in the balcony and I went back downstairs to go into the theater to help check the people on the ground floor. I had only taken a few steps in when I saw Officer McDonald come up in the row in front of the suspect. Just as McDonald came up in front of him, he jumped up, hit Officer McDonald in the face…. He pulled the revolver from his waist. When I first saw it, he had the revolver in his hand pointing it toward McDonald, and that’s when I tried to get just as close to him as possible, trying to grab for the weapon. I came over the backs of the seats, and I hung my right ankle in between the seats and in scuffling with him to get him under control…I pulled a leg muscle in my right ankle. I was not aware of that at the time.

…As I was grabbing for the weapon that Oswald had pulled out, I came down on the side of Oswald. And I remember I did hit him with an open hand, and this ring could have…made the scrape marks on his right temple…forehead. There were several officers grabbing for Oswald. He was wrestled to the floor. I never saw an officer hit him with a fist, shotgun butt, or anything else at the time he was in my presence.

We had an unmarked police car…parked in front of the theater, and as we went out there were numerous people…police officers and civilian people out in front of the theater….As we were bringing him out of the theater…he was telling me…”Oh, the handcuffs are too tight.” I reached back and felt that I could get my middle finger in between his wrists and the handcuffs, and in my opinion, they were not too tight.

Traffic was stopped. We could hardly get this car out…we heard several people rolling their windows down and saying, “Kill that S.O.B!” We were not aware that we had arrested the person who had assassinated President Kennedy and wounded Gov. Connally. We radioed the dispatcher…that we had a suspect in the shooting of Officer Tippit. The dispatcher asked us for the name of the suspect, and I had taken his wallet out of his left rear pocket and had taken several cards out of his wallet and it contained several different names. Hidell, Oswald, and I think a couple other aliases, and I gave this all to the dispatcher. I took out of his wallet “Freedom for Cuba” cards…looking for other aliases that we might identify him with. I think it was Sergeant Hill who was talking to the dispatcher and we gave him the names….The dispatcher advised us then that we were to bring this suspect directly to Captain Fritz’s office, that he was a prime suspect in the assassination of President Kennedy and the wounding of Gov. Connally.

I turned to him and I said, “Did you shoot President Kennedy?” And he said, “You find out for yourself.”

I sat down to make out a report at one of the desks…and that’s when Inspector Putman came over and advised me that there was something wrong with my right ankle, and I looked down and it was swollen. I didn’t even realize it was swollen. I could hardly see the shoe it was swollen so bad.

OSWALD INTERROGATION BEGINS 2:20 P.M. Detective James Leavelle describes questioning Oswald.

Detective Leavelle: [While interviewing him] on the shooting of Tippit, Oswald made a statement, “I didn’t shoot anybody.”

I have worked [the slaying of] two other officers, and they had said, “Well, I didn’t shoot the cop,” or “I didn’t shoot the policeman.” But Oswald didn’t say that. He said, “I didn’t shoot anybody.” But I also told him, I said, “Well, Lee, you strike me as a pretty intelligent individual.” I said, “You know, of course, that we can take the bullets in the officer and use the pistol that you had on you at the time you were arrested and run ballistics on them and prove that the bullets that killed the officer came from your pistol, don’t you?” He said, “Yeah, I know that, but you’ll just have to do it.” I don’t know what was going on inside of him, but he struck me as a very calm individual, and he answered my questions very clearly and everything….

MARGUERITE OSWALD COMES TO THE POLICE STATION After being out on the town all night with local and national newsmen, Bob Shieffer—then a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter—is awakened by his brother. He recounts his amazing afternoon.

Bob Shieffer: I was sound asleep when it happened, and Tom…came in and waked me up, and he said: “You better get up. The president’s been shot. You better go to work.”…by the time I got to the First National Bank building where we parked…and just as I parked my car…it came over my car that the president was dead. I was just beside myself…and I began to cry. The city editor had sent all the reporters to Dallas and there wasn’t anybody to answer the phones, and that’s when this unbelievable thing happened to me. I was just answering the phones on the city desk when we got this call, and this woman said, “Is there somebody there who can give me a ride to Dallas?” And I said, “Well, you know, lady, this is not the taxi, and the president’s been shot.” She said, “Well, I heard it on the radio, and they say my son is the one who shot him.” And it was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother….

She had been living in Fort Worth when he had defected to the Soviet Union, and so reporters from the Star-Telegram had actually gone out and interviewed her, and perhaps the paper was her only contact.

I had a Triumph sports car in those days, and I thought, “My God, I can’t bring her over to Dallas in that.” And so, I went to the auto editor, Bill Foster…the car dealers always gave him a car and gas to drive for a week or two….I said, “Bill, what kind of car do you have this week?” And he said, “I’ve got a Cadillac, actually.”

I explained what had happened, and so the two of us went out to Arlington Heights and, sure enough, standing on the curb at the address she had given us was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. She had on a little white practical nurse’s uniform…and she had these big, black horn-rimmed glasses. I got in the backseat with her and Bill drove, and I tried to talk to her and interviewed her…but she seemed to express no curiosity or interest in the president being shot. She didn’t express much interest in what was going to happen to her son. She began to say that people would sympathize with his wife [Marina] and that they would give her money and that she wouldn’t get any and that she’d starve to death, and she didn’t know how she was going to live. And these…statements were so bizarre that when I wrote the story about it for the next day’s paper, I didn’t even include most of it….I thought, “This poor woman, who can imagine being in the situation that she had suddenly found herself in?”

When we got to the Dallas Police Station, this tale became even stranger. I was wearing my snap-brim hat like I always wore…I took her in and I told the first uniformed cop, “I’m the one that brought Oswald’s mother over here, where can we put her so these reporters won’t be talking to her?” He found a place for us, and so I put her in there and went in there with her. By that time, we [ Star-Telegram ] had 17 reporters on the scene. Well, as the evening wore on, they brought Oswald’s wife in and finally, Mrs. Oswald, the mother, asked Captain Fritz…if he could arrange for her to see her son, and he said he’d see what he could do. And the next thing I know, they’re ushering her and his wife and me into this holding room next to the jail, and I’m just kind of sitting there thinking, “When is this going to end?”…At this point, not one person there had asked me who I was….Finally, one of the officers said, “Who are you with?” And I said, “Who are you with?” And he said, “Are you a newspaper reporter?” And I said, “Well, aren’t you a reporter?” I believe that’s when I got the first serious death threat as an adult because I think he would have killed me. He said: “You get out of here! I don’t ever want to see you again.” You know, the first rule of reporting is it’s better to apologize than to explain, so I said: “Well, I apologize. I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to be here.” And I got out of there….

Bob Jackson: The scene at the police station was just bedlam…you couldn’t move…there were so many people in the halls…it was hard to shoot pictures. I photographed Marina, the kids and Oswald’s mother in a group. I don’t know how I stumbled onto that, but I was real pleased with the picture.

RIFLE SHOWN TO MARINA OSWALD Homicide Captain Will Fritz and Lieutenant Day confront Marina Oswald with the rifle.

Captain Fritz: I also asked Lieutenant Day to bring the rifle down after I sent after [Marina] Oswald, and had her look at the rifle. She couldn’t identify it positively, it looked like the rifle that he had, but she couldn’t say for sure. [She] thought he brought it from New Orleans.

Lieutenant Day: Captain Fritz had Marina Oswald in his office….He came up to my office and said he wanted her to look at the gun to see if she could identify it, but he didn’t want to bring her out into the reporters out there in the hall. I’m accustomed to four, five, six reporters hanging out in that hall all the time in any major case. And if I wrapped the thing up, it’s likely to mess up the powder or prints that are on there. So I just picked it up by…the strap and the stock, and I decided I’d carry it like that down, and go through a few reporters and show it to her. Well when I got off at the third floor, I was shocked. There was television cameras and I don’t know how many people were there….And here I am with a piece of evidence, standing there holding it over my head, and all these people around. But Captain Fritz and his men spread them out, and I walked on through holding the gun over my head so nobody would touch it. And showed it to Marina Oswald in the office….I finally took the gun on back upstairs. But they got that television picture of me holding it over my head and everything else. Looked to me like I was trying to show the thing off, which…was a poor way of handling evidence.

BODY MOVED FROM PARKLAND TO AIR FORCE ONE 2:20 P.M. Authorities contest control of the president’s body, as recounted by Agent Roy Kellerman and Henry Wade, Dallas district attorney.

Agent Kellerman: I was requested by Mr. O’Donnell, one of the presidential assistants, to obtain a casket, because they wanted to return to Washington immediately. I contacted the administrator of the hospital and asked him to take me where I could telephone the nearest mortuary, which I did, requested that their best available casket be brought to the emergency entrance in my name immediately. The casket did arrive from the O’Neal Mortuary, Inc., in their own hearse, which we then wheeled into the emergency room. I left the emergency room and asked that two of our agents…clear all the corridors, and I checked the closest and most immediate route to the ambulance.

…Another gentleman came into this little doctor’s room…he represented himself to be from the Health Department or commission. He said to me: “There has been a homicide here, you won’t be able to remove the body. We will have to take it down there to the mortuary and have an autopsy.” I said, “No, we are not.” And he said, “We have a law here you have to comply with it.”

With that Dr. [George] Burkley walked in, and I said: “Doctor, this man is from some health unit in town. He tells me we can’t remove this body.” The doctor became a little enraged; he said: “We are removing it. This is the president of the United States and there should be some consideration in an event like this.” And I told this gentleman, “You are going to have to come up with something a little stronger than [the] law that this body can’t be removed.”

Shortly he leaves this little room and it seems like a few minutes he is back and he has another gentleman with him, and he said: “He is a judge here in Dallas. He will tell you whether you can remove this body or not.” I said: “It doesn’t make any difference. We are going to move it. Judge, do you know who I am?”

The poor man looked at me and he said, “I know who you are, I can’t help you out.” I said: “All right, sir.” But then I happened to look to the right and I can see the casket coming on rollers, and I just left the room and let it out through the emergency entrance and we got to the ambulance and put it in, shut the door after Mrs. Kennedy and General [Godfrey] McHugh and Clinton Hill got in the rear part of this ambulance.

Henry Wade: …Aaron Ward was a justice of the peace at Parkland. He called me just as I got back to the office and he said, “Now, they’re having a fight over John F. Kennedy’s body.”…You have the Secret Service, the FBI and Jackie Kennedy trying to take the body on to Washington, and on the other side, you have Dr. [Earl] Rose, the medical examiner here, who wants to do the autopsy….And so, Dallas police and the sheriff — because there’s a state law that says you can’t take a body out of the state without an autopsy but the fine is $100 — they wanted to do the autopsy here. I said, “Is the White House doctor there?” And I got him on the phone…I said, “The only thing is, we’ve got to have some doctor testify that a gunshot wound caused his death.” And he said: “Well, we’re going to take him to Bethesda. And I’ll furnish your doctor when he does the autopsy for the trial.” And I got Ward back on there and I said, “Tell him to take him on back.”

Malcolm Kilduff: They wanted to keep the body here for an autopsy. And Roy Kellerman received word from headquarters to bring it back to Washington for an autopsy at Walter Reed or Bethesda Naval….And that’s when Roy Kellerman and some other agents and myself formed sort of a flying wedge…and we flew out that door and put the casket in the ambulance and took off and went to Love Field.

Agent Kellerman: I am looking around for Mr. Greer and I don’t spot him directly because I want to get out of here in a hurry, and I recognize Agent Berger and I said, “Berger, you get in the front seat and drive and Mr. Stout, you get in the middle and I will get on this side….” As we are leaving a gentleman taps on the driver’s window and they roll it down and he says, “I will meet you at the mortuary.” [I replied,] “Yes, sir.” We went to the airport.


Malcolm Kilduff: We went back to Air Force One , and by that time, Lyndon Johnson had contacted the attorney general, of course…there was no love lost between Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy. But Bobby advised him that in case of any presidential decisions, not knowing what was going on, that it would be best if he was sworn in here. So, that was the decision made by the attorney general, that he should be sworn in…by Judge Sarah Hughes, which, of course, was another slight irony. Lyndon Johnson had opposed her…appointment to the federal bench as a federal district court judge…. We got on Air Force One , and all the Kennedy people were in the far aft section of the plane around the casket.

Lyndon Johnson: Mrs. Kennedy and the president’s coffin arrived. Mrs. Johnson and I spoke to her. We tried to comfort her, but our words seemed inadequate. She went into the private quarters of the plane. I estimate that Mrs. Kennedy and the coffin arrived about a half-hour after we entered the plane, just after 2 o’clock. About a half-hour later, I asked someone to find out if Mrs. Kennedy would stand with us during the administration of the oath. Mrs. Johnson went back to be with her. Mrs. Kennedy came and stood with us during the moments that the oath was being administered. I shall never forget her bravery, nobility and dignity. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Kennedy were at my side as Judge Hughes administered the oath of office.

Malcolm Kilduff: When Judge Hughes came aboard, the president asked that Mrs. Kennedy be invited to come up during the swearing-in. She was only too gracious about coming forward. She never, never blinked an eye, twitched a muscle, and in some of the pictures, you can see the blood on that…suit of hers. And she stood right next to him as he was sworn in as our president. Within a few moments we were airborne back to Washington.

We all drank about as much as human beings could possibly consume, but nobody got drunk.


Captain Fritz: That first showup was for a lady who was an eyewitness and we were trying to get that showup as soon as we could because she was beginning to faint and getting sick. In fact, I had to leave the office and carry some ammonia across the hall. They were about to send her to the hospital or something and we needed that identification real quickly, and she got to feeling all right after using this ammonia. She looked at these people very carefully, and she picked him out and made the positive identification. She said: “That is the man that I saw shoot the officer.” She pointed out Oswald.

AIR FORCE ONE ARRIVES AT ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE 5 P.M. (6 P.M. EST) Ten minutes after landing, President Johnson addresses the nation.

Lyndon Johnson: This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy. I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help — and God’s.


Malcolm Kilduff: Now, in removing the casket on the forklift at Andrews Air Force Base, one of the handles got broken. And for that reason, they got another casket from Gawler’s Funeral Home in Washington, but that was not until after they had taken the body to Bethesda Naval Hospital. That’s when the switch in the caskets was made.

Agent Hill: I assisted Mrs. Kennedy and the attorney general, who had joined her at that time, into the ambulance bearing the president’s body….I entered the automobile immediately behind the ambulance….

I went to the 17th floor with Mrs. Kennedy, and I remained with Mrs. Kennedy except for one time when I was requested to come to the morgue to view the president’s body. I returned to the 17th floor and remained with Mrs. Kennedy until we departed the hospital. We went downstairs to the rear of the hospital, where the body was placed in a naval ambulance. I entered an automobile immediately behind the ambulance. Mrs. Kennedy and the attorney general got into the rear of the ambulance with the body. I accompanied them to the White House. I remained on duty until approximately 6:30 in the morning; went home, changed clothes, and came back.

ENCOUNTERS WITH JACK RUBY AT POLICE HEADQUARTERS CBS Radio reporter Ike Pappas recalls speaking with Ruby.

Ike Pappas: I was trying to get to Henry Wade’s office and up comes this guy in a black pin-striped suit…and a little fedora….little stubby little guy….He comes up to me, and he says, “Are you a reporter?” I said: “Yeah, I’m a reporter. Are you a policeman?” He said: “No, I’m Jack Ruby. I run the Carousel Club down the block.” And he hands me a card. I said: “Carousel Club? What’s that?” And he says: “Well, you know, it’s a nightclub. We’ve got, you know…get some of your friends and come by and you know, we have anything you need there, you know.” Here is this guy trying to hustle me into his nightclub. “I got your card,” I said. “Now, can you get me a telephone?” And he said, “Yeah, just a minute.” He’s looking around. I said, “I want to talk to Henry Wade, but I need a telephone.” He said, “I’ll get you a phone.” So, he goes over to Henry Wade and he said: “Hey, this guy’s from New York. Can he use your phone? And he wants to do an interview.” [Wade] said: “Yeah, but I’m busy with these reporters. Put him on the phone, and I’ll be in in a minute.” So, Jack Ruby takes me into Henry Wade’s office.

I dialed New York. Now, I’m saying: “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’m in the district attorney’s office.” And I figured this little guy, Jack Ruby, is really pretty connected….I did the interview, I hung up the phone, and I went about my business.

OSWALD MEETS THE PRESS 12 MIDNIGHT With allegations of police mishandling of the suspect swirling, Chief Jesse Curry brings Oswald to meet the media.

Chief Curry: The news media, a number of them, had continued to say: “Let us see him. What are you doing to him? How does he look?” I think one broadcaster…said that Lee Harvey Oswald is in custody of the police department…he looked all right when he went in there, they wouldn’t guarantee how he would look after he had been in custody of the Dallas police for a couple of hours, which intimated to me that they thought we were mistreating the prisoner. …I told them if they would not try to overrun the prisoner and not try to interrogate him we would bring him to the showup room. Now, Mr. Wade, the district attorney, was present at this time and his assistant was present, and as I recall, I asked Mr. Wade, “Do you think this will be all right?” And he said, “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

We brought him in there in front of the screen and kept him there as I recall only about four or five minutes….

Ike Pappas: As soon as I got there, I picked up the theme of what people were talking about. They were saying: “We think that they’re beating the hell out of him, you know. The cops are beating him up because he killed the president….” So, they were demanding of Will Fritz and the other detectives and Chief Curry that they produce Oswald. Eventually, they did bring him out at midnight….The deal was that there would be no questions. And everybody agreed: “Oh yeah, no questions. No problem, no questions, of course not.” And everybody knew that as soon as he showed his face, there would be questions. They brought him in and as soon as they saw him, “How did you get hurt?” and everybody was yelling things at him, and I screamed and a couple of other people screamed it at almost the same time, “Did you kill the president?” And he said, “No,…I didn’t kill anybody.” And as soon as he answered that…Will Fritz or one of the detectives said, “No, that’s enough, let’s go.” And they took him out of there, and then there was a lot of hubbub. People were scrambling to get telephones. How do we get the story out? We’ve seen the assassin! He did have a mouse on his eye. He was injured in the arrest in the Texas Theatre, but he certainly wasn’t being beaten on by the Dallas police force. That story was gone.



Captain Fritz: I asked him what he thought of the president, about the family — he said he didn’t have any particular comment to make about the president. He said he had a nice family, that he admired his family, something to that effect….At one time I told him, “You know you have killed the president, and this is a very serious charge.” He denied it and said he hadn’t killed the president. He said people will forget that within a few days and there would be another president.

I showed him a picture of him holding a rifle and wearing the pistol…he said: “[Someone has taken my picture and that is my face and put a different body on it. I know all about photography, I worked with photography for a long time. That is a picture that someone else has made. I never saw that picture in my life.”

…In the hallway we had some 200 news reporters and cameramen with big cameras and little cameras and cables running on the floors to where we could hardly get in and out of the office…and each time we went through that hallway to and from the jail we had to pull him through all those people, and they, of course, would holler at him and say things to him,…and I don’t think that helped at all in questioning him. I think that all of that had a tendency to keep him upset.

OSWALD IS SHOT 11:21 A.M. Detectives Leavelle and L.C. Graves are assigned to escort Oswald to the county jail. Photographer Jackson and newsman Pappas are there among the crowd.

Detective Leavelle: I made a statement to him, in jest really, when I was getting him ready to transfer him down…I said, “Lee, I hope if anybody shoots at you, they’re as good a shot as you are,” meaning, of course, that it’d hit him and not me. And he kind of laughed, and I think it was the only time I ever saw him smile while he was in custody. He said, “Nobody’s going to be shooting at me.”…I said, “Well, in case they do, you know what to do, don’t you?” And he said, “Well, Captain Fritz has told me to follow you, so I’ll do whatever you do.” And I said, “Well, in that case, if anybody starts shooting at you, you will be on the floor in a hurry.”

My left arm was handcuffed to his right….And the reason for that was, since the threats had been that they were going to take him away from us and do all kinds of bodily harm to him, Cap figured somebody ought to be handcuffed to him, so if they took him, they had to take me, too.

Detective L.C. Graves was on his left, holding onto his left arm, and we had a couple officers behind us…and there were detectives lined up along the wall just outside the double doors. So, I walked out into the basement with Oswald…I was told that the car that we were going to transfer him in would be crossways with the doorway, which it was not. But one of our detectives was in there and was trying to back it into position, and at the time…when I walked out, I was looking to my right at the car….Out of the peripheral vision…I saw Ruby standing in the center of the driveway, in front of all of those newspapermen, and he had the pistol out and by his side.

I saw all of that in a flash. I had Oswald right up against me, and I tried to pull him behind me, but all I succeeded in doing was turning his body, so that instead of hitting him dead center, it hit him just about four inches to the left of the navel. Then the officers gathered around there had piled on him and pushed him to the ground. I reached over and grabbed Ruby by…his left shoulder and shoved back and down on him, but by the time that happened, the officers had swarmed on him and crushed him to the ground, and so I released him and returned my attention to Oswald. And with the help of Detective Combest…we picked him up and carried him back inside the jail, and I gave my keys to Combest, and he took the handcuffs off of him. The ambulance was there in a matter of minutes, and also, the intern from Parkland that we had down there every weekend working Saturdays and Sundays…was there immediately and started working on him. And when the ambulance pulled in, we loaded him in the ambulance, and I crawled in there with him and so did the doctor, and we rode to Parkland with him.

Detective Graves: We were told the car would be backed up there right in position where all we’d have to do was walk out and get in it. And we got out there, and it wasn’t there…we were told to wait and they’d give us a “clear” signal, so somebody gave us a “clear” signal and we walked out, and there wasn’t supposed to be anybody out there but police officers around that wall. Well, the first thing that happened to me…there was a guy there with a trench coat on. He’s got a microphone…and he slapped it right up in my face and began to try and talk to me. And I’m just walking right on by him, getting away from him….My eyes are on the car. Now, Ruby steps out from behind this officer…he steps out, he makes one long step….and coming down with that pistol. Well, I saw him coming down with that pistol…so I got loose from his [Oswald’s] arm and grabbed his pistol before he could get the second shot off. I grabbed it right over the cylinder. When you do that, that stops the pistol from firing. I grabbed it and then I turned to my right just right around with his arm and began to twist and tell him to turn that gun loose with a few choice words…I think I called him a “son of a bitch” and told him to turn that gun loose before I broke his arm off….

Bob Jackson: I positioned myself there, I pre-focused….So, they said, “He’s coming down.” And we were all ready, and I could see when he came out the door. I put the camera up to my face, and I was looking through the viewfinder at my spot because I didn’t want to miss that first frame. My plan was to get a shot there and then back up the ramp on my side of the car. I knew they’d put him in one of those vehicles…I thought that probably at the most, I might get three frames or two. So, as he stepped into the clearing, I’m ready to shoot, I see a figure step out very quickly. The arm came up, the shot, I fired, it just came together.

Ike Pappas : I’ve got all these people in front of me…they’re three deep. I said, “God, I hope he doesn’t come out now…because I can’t see anything.” I saw a little opening right next to the fender of a car….I went over there and I squeezed in, moved in with my big New York City elbows. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I was squeezing in right in front of Jack Ruby.

Oswald hit the door, and he started to come for me…for the car. And I started….”Here he is, wearing his black sweater….Do you have anything to say in your defense?” And just as I said “defense,” Boom! He jumps out, shoots him right in front of me….I heard footsteps, and then boom! and then I saw this flash on his black sweater and Oswald moaned and he went down….And I felt the impact of the bullet as it creased the air. I felt this explosion of the weapon. The next thought that I had is…this is history and upon these words you’ll be judged as a reporter and as a human being. Say something, don’t freeze, and…the only thing that was apparent to me was that Oswald had been shot. “Oswald’s been shot!” I could see his feet being dragged back into the double doors and then there’s a huge fight in front of us. And police were saying, “Freeze!” I went down on one knee…to continue broadcasting. Ruby was then taken away too…then, a detective came out, and I said, “Who was that?” And he said: “It was Jack Ruby. Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.”

THE PRESIDENT LIES IN STATE As Oswald is shot in Dallas, Kennedy’s body is moved from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda, where a brief ceremony is held. An estimated 250,000 mourners line up to pay their respects.


Captain Fritz: I wanted to know something about premeditation because I was thinking about the trial too and I told him I wanted to ask him some questions and he first said: “I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to my lawyers.” [Later he said,] “Now if you will level with me and you won’t make me look like a fool…I will talk to you.”

I did ask him some questions and he told me that he shot him, told me that he was all torn up about the presidential killing, that he felt terribly sorry for Mrs. Kennedy.

Struggling to regain its balance from the staggering, violent blows inflicted in Dallas, a numb and somber nation collectively searches for solace and comfort in the poignant pageantry of a state funeral. The symbolism wrought through the use of the same catafalque and caisson that bore the body of Abraham Lincoln contributes to a sense that while a leader falls the Republic marches on, its ideals inviolate. As a grieving world gazes upon her, the slain president’s widow braces the nation’s fallen spirits with her fortitude and grace on this crisp, sun-soaked November day. After receiving the sympathy of presidents, ministers and monarchs, Jacqueline Kennedy — looking forward, not back — hosts a birthday celebration later that evening for her son John, turning 3 years old that day.

Halfway across the continent, two other Americans shot and killed in Dallas are laid to rest. Hundreds honor fallen policeman J.D. Tippit, killed in the line of duty. Few bid farewell to the infinitely infamous Lee Harvey Oswald.

This article was originally published in the December 2003 issue of American History magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!]

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John F. Kennedy: Life in Brief

John F. Kennedy was born into a rich, politically connected Boston family of Irish-Catholics. He and his eight siblings enjoyed a privileged childhood of elite private schools, sailboats, servants, and summer homes. During his childhood and youth, “Jack” Kennedy suffered frequent serious illnesses. Nevertheless, he strove to make his own way, writing a best-selling book while still in college at Harvard University and volunteering for hazardous combat duty in the Pacific during World War II. Kennedy's wartime service made him a hero. After a short stint as a journalist, Kennedy entered politics, serving in the US House of Representatives from 1947 to 1953 and the US Senate from 1953 to 1961.

Kennedy was the youngest person elected US president and the first Roman Catholic to serve in that office. For many observers, his presidency came to represent the ascendance of youthful idealism in the aftermath of World War II. The promise of this energetic and telegenic leader was not to be fulfilled, as he was assassinated near the end of his third year in office. For many Americans, the public murder of President Kennedy remains one of the most traumatic events in memory; countless Americans can remember exactly where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. His shocking death stood at the forefront of a period of political and social instability in the country and the world.

Marc J. Selverstone

Marc J. Selverstone

Associate Professor of History Miller Center, University of Virginia

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John f. kennedy presidency page, john f. kennedy essays, life in brief (current essay), life before the presidency, campaigns and elections, domestic affairs, foreign affairs, death of a president, family life, the american franchise, impact and legacy.

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Biography of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the U.S.

His term was cut short by his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas

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John F. Kennedy (May 29, 1917–Nov. 22, 1963), the first U.S. president born in the 20th century, was born to a wealthy, politically connected family . Elected as the 35th president in 1960, he took office on Jan. 20, 1961, but his life and legacy were cut short when he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. Though he served as president for less than three years, his brief term coincided with the height of the Cold War, and his tenure was marked by some of the biggest crises and challenges of the 20th century.

Fast Facts: John F. Kennedy

  • Known For : First U.S. president born in the 20th century, known for the fiasco of The Bay of Pigs early in his term, his highly praised response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
  • Also Known As : JFK
  • Born : May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts
  • Parents : Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald
  • Died : Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas
  • Education : Harvard University (BA, 1940), Stanford University Graduate School of Business (1940–1941)
  • Published Works : Profiles in Courage
  • Awards and Honors : Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Purple Heart, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Pulitzer Prize for Biography (1957)
  • Spouse : Jacqueline L. Bouvier (m. Sept. 12, 1953–Nov. 22, 1963)
  • Children : Caroline, John F. Kennedy, Jr.
  • Notable Quote : "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable."

Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was sickly as a child and continued to have health problems for the rest of his life. He attended private schools including Choate and Harvard (1936–1940), where he majored in political science. An active and accomplished undergraduate, Kennedy graduated cum laude.

Kennedy's father was the indomitable Joseph Kennedy. Among other ventures, he was the head of the SEC and the ambassador to Great Britain. His mother was a Boston socialite named Rose Fitzgerald. He had nine siblings including Robert Kennedy, who he appointed as the U.S. attorney general. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 . In addition, his brother Edward Kennedy was a senator from Massachusetts who served from 1962 until his death in 2009.

Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, a wealthy socialite and photographer, on Sept. 12, 1953. Together they had two children:  Caroline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Jr. Another son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died on Aug. 9, 1963, two days after his birth.

Military Career

Kennedy was originally turned down by both the Army and Navy because of his back pain and other medical problems. He didn’t give up, and with the help of his father’s political contacts, he was accepted into the Navy in 1941. He made it through the Navy Officer Candidate School but then failed another physical. Determined not to spend his military career sitting behind a desk, he again called upon his father's contacts. With their help, he managed to get into a new PT boat training program.

After completing the program, Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He was given command of PT-109 . When the boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, he and his crew were thrown into the water. He was able to swim four hours to save himself and a fellow crewman, but he aggravated his back in the process. He received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his military service and was hailed for his heroism.

House of Representatives

Kennedy worked for a time as a journalist before running for the House of Representatives. Now considered a Navy war hero, Kennedy was elected to the House in November 1946. This class also included another former Navy man whose career arc would eventually intersect with Kennedy’s— Richard M. Nixon . Kennedy served three terms in the House—he was reelected in 1948 and 1950—where he gained a reputation as a somewhat conservative Democrat.

He did show himself to be an independent thinker, not always following the party line, such as in his opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act, an anti-union bill that passed both the House and Senate overwhelmingly during the 1947-1948 session. As a freshman member of the minority party in the House and not a member of any of the committees of jurisdiction, there was little else Kennedy could do other than speak against the bill, which he did.

U.S. Senate

Kennedy was later elected to the U.S. Senate—defeating Henry Cabot Lodge II, who would later become the Republican U.S. vice presidential candidate on the 1960 ticket alongside Nixon—where he served from 1953 to 1961. Again, he did not always vote with the Democratic majority.

Kennedy had more impact in the Senate than in the House. For example, in late spring 1953, he gave three speeches on the Senate floor outlining his New England economic plan, which he said would be good for New England and the nation as a whole. In the speeches, Kennedy called for a diversified economic base for New England and the U.S., with job training and technical assistance for the workers and relief from harmful tax provisions for the firms.

In other areas, Kennedy:

  • Distinguished himself as a national figure in the debate and vote on building the St. Lawrence Seaway ;
  • Used his position on the Senate Labor Committee to push for an increase in the minimum wage and to protect union rights in an environment where Congress was trying to strip unions of any power to bargain effectively;
  • Joined the Foreign Relations Committee in 1957, where he supported Algerian independence from France and sponsored an amendment that would provide aid to Russian satellite nations;
  • Introduced an amendment to the National Defense Education Act to eliminate the requirement that aid recipients sign a loyalty oath.

During his time in the Senate, Kennedy also authored "Profiles in Courage," which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, although there was some question about its true authorship.

Election of 1960

In 1960, Kennedy was nominated to run for the presidency against Nixon, who was by then Dwight D. Eisenhower 's vice president. During Kennedy's nominating speech, he set forward his ideas of a "New Frontier." Nixon made the mistake of meeting Kennedy in debates—the first televised presidential debates in U.S. history—during which Kennedy came off as young and vital.

During the campaign, both candidates worked to win support from the growing suburban population. Kennedy sought to pull together key elements of Franklin D. Roosevelt 's coalition of the 1930s—urban minorities, ethnic voting blocs, and organized labor—win back conservative Catholics who had deserted the Democrats to vote for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, and hold his own in the south. Nixon emphasized the record of the Eisenhower years and promised to keep the federal government from dominating the free market economy and the lives of Americans.

At the time, some sectors expressed concern that a Catholic president, which Kennedy would be, would be beholden to the Pope in Rome. Kennedy confronted the issue in a speech before the Greater-Houston Ministerial Association, in which he said: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be Catholic—how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

The anti-catholic feeling remained strong among some sectors of the populace, but Kennedy won by the smallest margin of popular votes since 1888, 118,574 votes. However, he received 303 electoral votes .

Events and Accomplishments

Domestic policy: Kennedy had a tough time getting many of his domestic programs through Congress. However, he did get an increased minimum wage, better Social Security benefits, and an urban renewal package passed. He created the Peace Corps, and his goal to get to the moon by the end of the 1960s found overwhelming support.

On the Civil Rights front, Kennedy initially did not challenge Southern Democrats. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that only by breaking unjust laws and accepting the consequences could African-Americans show the true nature of their treatment. The press reported daily on the atrocities occurring due to nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Kennedy used executive orders and personal appeals to aid the movement. His legislative programs, however, would not pass until after his death.

Foreign affairs: Kennedy's foreign policy began in failure with the Bay of Pigs debacle of 1961. A small force of Cuban exiles was to lead a revolt in Cuba but was captured instead. America's reputation was seriously harmed. Kennedy's confrontation with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961 led to the construction of the Berlin Wall . Further, Khrushchev began building nuclear missile bases in Cuba. Kennedy ordered a "quarantine" of Cuba in response. He warned that any attack from Cuba would be seen as an act of war by the USSR. This standoff led to the dismantling of the missile silos in exchange for promises that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. Kennedy also agreed to a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 with Great Britain and the USSR.

Two other important events during his term were the Alliance for Progress (the U.S. provided aid to Latin America) and the problems in Southeast Asia. North Vietnam was sending troops through Laos to fight in South Vietnam. The South's leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, was ineffective. America increased its military advisers from 2,000 to 16,000 during this time. Diem was overthrown but new leadership was no better. When Kennedy was killed, Vietnam was approaching a boiling point.


Kennedy's three years in office were somewhat turbulent, but by 1963 he was still popular and thinking about running for a second term. Kennedy and his advisers felt that Texas was a state that could provide crucial electoral votes, and they made plans for Kennedy and Jackie to visit the state, with stops planned for San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin. On Nov. 22, 1963, after addressing the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Kennedy and the first lady boarded a plane for a brief flight to Dallas, arriving just before noon accompanied by about 30 members of the Secret Service.

They were met by a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible limousine that would take them on a 10-mile parade route within the city of Dallas, ending at the Trade Mart, where Kennedy was scheduled to deliver a luncheon address. He never made it. Thousands lined the streets, but just before 12:30 p.m., the presidential motorcade turned right from Main Street onto Houston Street and entered Dealey Plaza.

After passing the Texas School Book Depository, at the corner of Houston and Elm, shots suddenly rang out. One shot hit Kennedy’s throat, and as he reached up with both hands toward the injury, another shot struck his head, mortally wounding him.

Kennedy's apparent assassin,  Lee Harvey Oswald , was killed by Jack Ruby before standing trial. The Warren Commission was called to investigate Kennedy's death and found that Oswald had acted alone to kill Kennedy. Many argued, however, that there was more than one gunman, a theory upheld by a 1979 House Committee investigation. The FBI and a 1982 study disagreed. Speculation continues to this day.

Kennedy was important more for his iconic reputation than his legislative actions. His many inspiring speeches are often quoted. His youthful vigor and fashionable first lady was hailed as American royalty; his time in office was termed "Camelot." His assassination has taken on a mythic quality, leading many to posit about possible conspiracies involving everyone from  Lyndon Johnson  to the Mafia. His moral leadership of Civil Rights was an important part of the movement's eventual success.

  • “ Campaign of 1960 .”  JFK Library.
  • “ Details You Didn't Know About the Death of JFK's Son, Patrick. .”  IrishCentral.com , 4 Nov. 2018.
  • “ John F. Kennedy. ”  Biography.com , A&E Networks Television, 14 Jan. 2019.
  • “ John F. Kennedy. ”  The White House , The United States Government.
  • “ JFK's Assassination Aided by His Bad Back, Records Show. ”  fox8.Com , 22 Nov. 2017.
  • “ JFK in Congress. ”  National Archives and Records Administration , National Archives and Records Administration.
  • “ John F. Kennedy: Life Before the Presidency. ”  Miller Center , 22 Apr. 2018.
  • Who Were the Democratic Presidents of the United States?
  • How Many U.S. Presidents Have Been Assassinated?
  • Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill JFK?
  • President John F. Kennedy's Assassination
  • Biography of John F. Kennedy Jr.
  • 10 Things to Know About John F. Kennedy
  • JFK's Accomplishments in Education and the Space Program
  • Why Did the U.S. Enter the Vietnam War?
  • Top 10 Facts About LBJ, President of the US
  • Biography of Caroline Kennedy
  • John F. Kennedy Printables
  • World War II: PT-109
  • How Ford Became President Without Getting Any Votes
  • Biography of John McCain, From POW to Influential US Senator
  • Biography of Walter Cronkite, Anchorman and TV News Pioneer
  • Kennedy Family Tree: Descendents and Ancestors

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies

The Best Biographies of John F. Kennedy

31 Thursday Aug 2017

Posted by Steve in Best Biographies Posts , President #35 - J Kennedy


American history , Arthur Schlesinger Jr. , book reviews , Doris Kearns Goodwin , Geoffrey Perret , Herbert Parmet , JFK , John F Kennedy , Michael O'Brien , Nigel Hamilton , Pulitzer Prize , Richard Reeves , Robert Dallek , Ted Sorensen , Thomas Reeves , Thurston Clarke

biography of jfk

In the end, JFK proved to be everything I hoped for – and more! Like several of the presidents who preceded him, Kennedy’s life is a biographer’s dream .

His forebears were dynamic, endlessly fascinating, occasionally unscrupulous and, from time to time, oddly dysfunctional. Kennedy himself proved to be no less interesting: he was medically infirm, an ardent bookworm, a serial philanderer, often ruthlessly pragmatic and extremely charismatic.

But after spending five-and-a-half months with JFK and experiencing his presidency nine times (three of the books did not cover his time in the Oval Office) I still find Kennedy undeservedly well-ranked by historians. But that’s a subject for another day.

* “ An Unfinished Life: JFK 1917-1963 ” by Robert Dallek (published 2003) – This comprehensive biography was the first book on JFK that I read. It also proved to be my favorite. Dallek provides a devastating early indictment of JFK’s personal behavior, but more than half of the book is reserved for Kennedy’s presidency where his personal affairs take a back seat to the nation’s issues. Overall, Dallek’s biography provides the best combination of insight, balance and color of any of the JFK biographies I encountered — 4¼ stars ( Full review here )

* “ JFK: Reckless Youth ” by Nigel Hamilton (1992) – This was intended to be the first book in a three-volume series but as a result of his “unflattering” portrayal of the Kennedy family Hamilton lost access to important research documents and, regrettably, abandoned the series. This lively 800-page narrative is riveting and provides unparalleled insight into JFK’s relationships with his older brother and his parents (who are painted in an extremely unflattering light). No other biography I read covers Kennedy’s early life better than this volume — 3¾ stars ( Full review here )

* “ Kennedy: The Classic Biography ” by Ted Sorensen (1965) – Written by Kennedy’s long-time adviser and speechwriter, the author’s proximity to JFK proves both a blessing and a curse. Sorensen’s allegiance to Kennedy is quickly obvious – and occasionally distracting – but the narrative covers events from a unique perspective. But in the end it does not provide balanced, comprehensive coverage of JFK and can only serve as the eloquent observations of a staunchly loyal aide — 3½ stars ( Full review here )

* “ John F. Kennedy: A Biography ” by Michael O’Brien (2005) – This 905-page biography is encyclopedic and provides more detail (and more perspectives) on most events than any other JFK biography. But while it is 200 pages longer than Dallek’s biography (its most comparable counterpart) it is no more potent…and its numerous nuggets of wisdom are buried beneath an avalanche of unnecessary verbosity — 3½ stars ( Full review here )

* “ Jack: A Life Like No Other ” by Geoffrey Perret (2001) – This full-scale (but lightweight, at just 400 pages) biography is easy to read and decidedly informal. Unfortunately, it also provides less insight or analysis of Kennedy than most other biographies. And while readers new to JFK may appreciate its lack of “complexity” almost everyone else will finish this biography still feeling hungry — 3 stars ( Full review here )

* “ A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy ” by Thomas Reeves (1991) – This study quickly proves to be a captivating, but flawed, critique of its subject. Devoted to exposing the hypocrisy hidden beneath Camelot’s polished veneer, it feels more bluntly partisan, and less scholarly, than Nigel Hamilton’s somewhat similar “JFK: Reckless Youth.” But where Hamilton covers three decades in about 900 pages, Reeves covers JFK’s entire life in just half of that — 3 stars ( Full review here )

* “ Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy ” and “ JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy ” by Herbert Parmet – This two-volume series was published between 1980 and 1983 and totals nearly 900 pages (excluding notes and bibliography). Offering a thoughtful and balanced perspective on Kennedy, this series is serious, scholarly and solid. But where it was the “go to” reference on Kennedy for years, documents which have become available since its publication have left it somewhat stale. Parmet’s writing style also leaves JFK and his family feeling a bit flat and lifeless. Imagine that ! — 3½ star (Full reviews here and here )

* “ The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys ” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (1987) – This non-traditional biography of JFK is actually a family history which ends with a focus on John F. Kennedy – but only up to his presidential inauguration. Despite its heft (943 pages) it is engrossing, clever and insightful. Unfortunately it also left Goodwin embroiled in a plagiarism scandal.  But for readers unconcerned with the author’s failure to adequately cite sources – or her awkward effort to conceal her sins – it is a wickedly entertaining and perceptive (if too friendly) treatment of Honey Fitz, Rose Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy. The book does not end as strongly as it starts and the weakest player (ironically) is JFK himself who receives less focus than he deserves — 4½ stars ( Full review here )

* “ A Thousand Days: JFK in the White House ” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1965) – This Pulitzer Prize-winning tome (with 1,031 pages) is part memoir, part biography and part interpretive history with a nearly exclusive focus on the Kennedy presidency. The author served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy, providing him an advantageous perch from which to view JFK’s presidency. Schlesinger’s reputation as a historian is unquestioned, but his book proves dense, dry and often tedious – as well as uneven in emphasis and highly sympathetic to Kennedy. A classic, perhaps, but not a balanced account of the Kennedy presidency — 3 stars ( Full review here )

* “ President Kennedy: Profile of Power ” by Richard Reeves (1993) – This unique (and extraordinarily revealing) book follows JFK almost moment-by-moment through his presidency. But where most biographies are written from the point of view of the biographer , Reeves’s audience often views the world through Kennedy’s own eyes. Unfortunately missing from the book is much insight on Kennedy’s family and friends, and there is little analysis to be found. But for a unique point of view, and as a  supplemental book on JFK, “Profile of Power” is hard to beat — 3¾ stars ( Full review here )

* “ JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President ” by Thurston Clarke (2013) – Ostensibly focused on the last weeks of Kennedy’s life, this book is more comprehensive than its title suggests. Almost continuously throughout its 362 pages it reaches back in time to Kennedy’s past in order to provide unfamiliar readers with adequate context. The resulting lack of continuity, however, is perhaps the book’s greatest weakness. Most confounding, however, is the book’s failure (despite its sub-title) to demonstrate that Kennedy was on the verge of  greatness when he was assassinated. Otherwise, a stimulating and enjoyable read — 3½ stars ( Full review here )

Best Biography of John F. Kennedy: “ An Unfinished Life: JFK 1917-1963 ” by Robert Dallek

Honorable Mention: “ JFK: Reckless Youth ” by Nigel Hamilton (though “incomplete”)

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35 thoughts on “the best biographies of john f. kennedy”.

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August 31, 2017 at 2:55 pm

I find it interesting with all that’s been written about him, only one book was rated at 4 stars+. Looking forward to LBJ!

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August 31, 2017 at 5:05 pm

Yes, that was slightly disappointing. Other than Dallek’s biography, each book I read was either too narrowly focused for a 4+ rating or was disappointing in some meaningful way. The benefit to reading several biographies (particularly in the case of JFK) is that they tended to complement each other – one making up for another’s weakness, etc.

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August 31, 2017 at 5:40 pm

Enjoy your LBJ reads! Robert Caro’s series is fanastic! LBJ is fascinating! Much better books on him than on JFK in my opinion. I agree with you on JFK- his high ranking by many not deserved. Middle of the pack.

September 1, 2017 at 4:45 am

As a native Texan with no direct memory of LBJ I can’t wait to get through his life. I’m saving Caro for a few weeks so I’ll savor the moment(s) a bit more…but when I started with Washington I was really hoping Volume 5 would be out by the time I got to this point(!)

September 1, 2017 at 8:09 am

I am eagerly awaiting for Volume 5- the final volume– too. You have Johnson and Nixon coming up- a lot of good stuff on both of them. Great project!

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August 31, 2017 at 7:02 pm

He’s overrated as president, but seems to be an interesting biography subject!

September 1, 2017 at 4:43 am

Indeed – an absolutely fascinating biographical subject! So I was a little surprised the biographies of him weren’t more consistently excellent.

But it seems that in the decades since his death many biographers have dedicated themselves either to tearing apart the Camelot “myth” or excessively praising/eulogizing him.

Can’t wait to see how LBJ turns out!

September 1, 2017 at 10:53 am

I’m amazed one if the top-5 biographers didn’t write on him considering his fame. I don’t care for LBJ as a president at all, but I look forward to your analysis of his biographies!

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August 26, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Would the biographies on Kennedy By Michael O’Brien or Robert Dallek be what you would call a good starter birth to death biography on Kennedy if you haven’t read on him before?

August 26, 2018 at 12:57 pm

Yes – though I think Dallek’s book is by far the better (more interesting and efficient) choice. Good luck and enjoy!

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September 4, 2018 at 3:33 pm

Would like to do a critical comparison of two biographies on JFK – what two would you recommend?

September 5, 2018 at 6:11 pm

Depending on what, exactly, you mean by “critical comparison” I would heartily recommend reading Dallek’s relatively traditional “An Unfinished Life” and comparing it to Goodwins’s “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys” which is somewhat less focused on JFK himself and more on his family – but he obviously plays a critical part in the narrative and is the emotional center of the book.

September 6, 2018 at 5:57 am

Thanks – by “critical comparison” I mean one that looks at JFK in a positive view and another in a negative view.

September 6, 2018 at 6:05 am

In that case I might suggest Ted Sorensen’s “Kennedy” as a favorable account of JFK and compare that portrait to the one provided by Nigel Hamilton’s “Reckless Youth.” I think you will find the contrast incredible.

Unfortunately the two books don’t cover the same periods of time with the same intensity (Sorensen spends much more time in JFK’s later life while Hamilton’s book focuses on his earlier years) but from what I recall, the image presented by these two books could almost be of a different person.

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January 13, 2019 at 6:37 am

I agree with your statement, “I still find Kennedy undeservedly well-ranked by historians. But that’s a subject for another day.” His legacy made him an outstanding president only after his death. There is very little of consequence that came from his term in office.

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January 12, 2023 at 10:51 am

(1) The U.S. was in recession when Kennedy took office. He carried out various measures to boost the economy under his own executive anti-recessionary acceleration program. Among other things, the most significant tax reforms since the New Deal were carried out including a new investment tax credit. GDP which had grown by an average of only 2.2% per annum during his predecessor Eisenhower’s presidency, expanded by an average of 5.5% from early 1961 to late 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. Also inflation remained steady at around 1%, industrial production rose by 15% and unemployment decreased. This rate of growth continued till 1969 and hasn’t been repeated for such a sustained period yet.

(2) JFK established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961 by Executive Order 10924.

(3) He stood up to the Soviet Union, forcing/negotiating the dismantling and removal of its nuclear weapons in Cuba.

(4) To slow down the nuclear arms race and to protect the environment from radioactive contamination, JFK began negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for a treaty to address these concerns. This resulted in the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which was signed by the governments of U.S.S.R., U.K. and the U.S. in Moscow on August 5, 1963. The provisions of the treaty prohibited nuclear testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, or underwater. All testing was to be driven underground. 125 UN member states have ratified or acceded to the treaty since then.

(5) His domestic program the “New Frontier” provided aid to cities to improve housing and transportation; a water pollution control act was passed to protect rivers and streams; social security benefits and minimum wage increased; and the most comprehensive legislation to assist farmers was carried out since 1938 which included expansion in rural electrification, soil conservation, crop insurance and farm credit.

(6) On March 6, 1961, he signed Executive Order 10925 which required government contractors to take affirmative action to ensure all employees are treated equally irrespective of their race, creed, color, or national origin. His Executive Order 11063 of November 1962 banned segregation in federally funded housing. On June 11, 1963, JFK gave his famous civil rights address calling Americans to recognize civil rights as a moral cause. His proposal to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities, and greater protection of voting rights became part of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

(7) On 10th June 1963, John F. Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to abolish wage disparity based on sex. It amended the existing Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. EPA was a major step towards closing the wage gap in women’s pay. Although EPA’s equal pay for equal work goals have not been completely achieved, women’s salaries via-à-vis men’s have risen dramatically since its enactment. JFK also proposed an overhaul of American immigration policy that would later lead to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that abolished the quota system based on national origins with a preference system that focused on the immigrant’s skills and family relationships with US citizens.

(8) On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy federalized National Guard troops and deployed them to the University of Alabama to force its desegregation. The next day, Governor Wallace yielded to the federal pressure, and two African American students—Vivian Malone and James A. Hood—successfully enrolled. In September of the same year, Wallace again attempted to block the desegregation of an Alabama public school—this time Tuskegee High School—but President Kennedy once again employed his executive authority and federalized National Guard troops. Wallace had little choice but to yield.

(9) Kennedy was an unparalleled advocate of the US Army Special Forces (i.e. the Green Berets). During JFK’s tenure as president, the Special Forces regiment grew by seven Special Forces groups. Not long after a visit to Fort Bragg in 1961 with then-Special Forces commander, Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough, Kennedy authorized the Green Beret as the official headgear of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Today, Special Forces Soldiers still train at the school which bears his name: the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

Was he perfect? Hell, no. He made plenty of mistakes, both large and small. But he had a better aim than most of the lesser ‘men’ that succeeded him.

— a former US Army parachute infantryman (three tours of the sandbox) raised on a West Texas ranch, a former federal law enforcement national security special investigator with a BA in American Political Thought, a current CPA with an MS in Accountancy, and the grandson of Continental, Union and Allied Army soldiers

January 13, 2023 at 6:25 am

If you know the whole story about # 3, you would not include it. #’s 6 & 7 still are not totally used today, but have to be sued for. # 9, special forces had been trained since WWII, he merely gave them a name.

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March 5, 2019 at 9:46 pm

I have to admit I haven’t been as fascinated by JFK as many others. So, in my own journey through the presidents, I chose Alan Brinkley’s biography for the American Presidents series. This series has been my go to for presidents lacking great bios or those I just wanted to “get through.” They’re all around 160 pages, often providing factual discussions that let you know what happened to the guy in his life—and little more. They are, in other words … OK.

I felt Brinkley’s book, however, was quite good. It’s portrait of JFK goes beyond factual recitation and was exceedingly well balanced. I now see JFK as admirable in some ways, far from admirable in others, and even have some understanding of how _others_ are partly responsible for the mixed views in which we hold him.

A cut above other entries in the Amer. Presidents series.

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September 18, 2020 at 4:36 pm

Early reviews are encouraging:

September 19, 2020 at 5:09 pm

Indeed, everything I’ve read and heard has been positive. Can’t wait to read this one and see for myself. Trying to figure out when exactly to squeeze it in since I’m hoping my next presidential biography will be the “coming soon” biography of Jimmy Carter.

September 19, 2020 at 8:43 pm

I am also looking forward to Alter’s Carter biography. It should be the best available to date given his access to Carter. I am hoping Douglas Brinkley is willing and able to revisit Carter in the future.

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January 17, 2023 at 6:14 pm

It is quite good, and the author is in the process of working on Part 2 – 1957-1963.

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January 11, 2021 at 5:52 am


If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend this biography of Bobby Kennedy by Evan Thomas.

January 11, 2021 at 8:56 am

Thanks for the suggestion. I’m exploring a couple of titles on Robert Kennedy and this is one of them! Glad to hear you liked it so much.

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June 9, 2021 at 11:41 am

The independent publisher I work for is about to release a book written by one of JFK’s long-time friends about his relationship with JFK over the years. Of course it will be available on Amazon but we’re happy to send you a promo copy if you are interested?

June 9, 2021 at 2:21 pm

As a standard practice I don’t ask for or review books I haven’t purchased…but can you confirm this book is on my Upcoming Releases page? If not it sounds like it should appear there-

June 9, 2021 at 2:42 pm

Can you please let me know what you need from me to list it on your upcoming releases page? It will likely be a late June or early July release. Thanks! Michelle

June 9, 2021 at 2:52 pm

Title, author’s name, and publication date would be great. A link to publisher’s page on the book (or Amazon’s pre-publication page for the book, if there is one) would be a bonus.

June 9, 2021 at 4:01 pm

Thanks, Steve. I just now sent you an email with the details.

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March 28, 2022 at 5:09 pm

I am truly surprised there is no mention of Red Faye’s “The Pleasure of His Company” a book loved by those who knew the individuals involved.

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March 29, 2022 at 4:17 am

Are you surprised it isn’t mentioned because you think it’s a really good biography or because it was written by one of JFK’s friends who doesn’t work too hard to cover him fully, warts and all? (The whole thing is something like 150 pages?) Just curious

July 16, 2023 at 7:46 pm

I spoke with a friend and comrade of Joe Jr. He and others like him revere this book and its loving portrayal of JFK. They believe it captured the man like nothing else. Scholarship is a wonderful thing, but a heart felt appreciation is incredibly enjoyable and valuable.

December 22, 2022 at 10:37 am

Here is the review of another one, released in 2022. You may want to reconsider his rank, I’m biased because I have him #1 out of 45. Why? Because I am still here to write this comment and you are still here to post your blog. https://www.kennedysandking.com/john-f-kennedy-articles/last-president

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March 2, 2023 at 5:40 am

I find it interesting you say Kennedy is “undeservedly well-ranked among historians” I find it quite the opposite, he’s extremely popular amongst the general public, but most historians rip into him far too much. I’ve recently been reading about Canadian-American bilateral relations and the general narrative of most historians of the 70s to 90s was that negative tensions amongst the two nations was largely Kennedy’s fault. It’s only recently that the love-to-hate-JFK tide has curbed amongst historians that, in the 2000s, there is more discussion regarding Canadian nationalism, anti-american sentiments, and more importantly the fact that Deifenbaker attempted to blackmail Kennedy, and then blamed JFK and American intervention after he lost his election in 63.

Reading the older historical accounts is such a whirlwind. Multiple historians accused Kennedy of being “arrogant” and one even said “who’s posture towards deifenbaker’s canada was that of a president stretching his legs across the border demanding a shoe shine” which is beyond ridiculous considering he actually showed a great deal of patience towards a highly nationalist prime minister that attempted to blame and blackmail him. Historians made the cat the mouse and made the mouse the cat. Madness

December 26, 2023 at 11:49 pm

Has anyone read the kennedys by Horowitz and collier to provide some insight or the kennedys by John h. Davis?thanks

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Historic Bios

John F. Kennedy: Life and Legacy

  • Post author By Historic Bios
  • Post date August 30, 2022
  • 1 Comment on John F. Kennedy: Life and Legacy

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. He was a member of the Democratic Party and is considered one of the most influential and charismatic presidents of the 20th century.

Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, to an affluent Irish Catholic family. He graduated from Harvard University in 1940 and joined the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he worked as a journalist for The Boston Post and as a correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune. Kennedy was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946 and to the U.S. Senate in 1952. He ran for president in 1960 and defeated Republican nominee Richard Nixon.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy

As president, Kennedy initiated the Peace Corps, supported the civil rights movement, and increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He also oversaw the development of the Apollo program, which led to the United States’ successful manned spaceflight.

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His death sent shockwaves through the nation and the world. Kennedy was succeeded by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Frequently asked questions about John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was one of the most popular presidents in American history. His assassination in 1963 left a nation in mourning. In the years since his death, there have been many questions about Kennedy and his presidency. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about JFK.

How Did Young Americans Respond To John F Kennedy’s Challenge?

In response to John F. Kennedy’s challenge, young Americans became more politically active and joined the Peace Corps in droves. They also became more aware of global issues and worked to promote peace and understanding between cultures. In addition, many young Americans decided to dedicate their lives to public service in order to make a difference in the world.

How Tall Was John F Kennedy?

John F Kennedy was 6 feet tall.

What Is John F Kennedy’s Middle Name?

John F Kennedy’s middle name is Fitzgerald. He was named after his maternal grandfather, John F Fitzgerald.

What High School Did John F Kennedy Attend?

John F Kennedy attended Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school in Connecticut. He was a good student and a talented athlete, playing football and baseball. He also participated in the drama club and the student government. Kennedy was expelled from Choate in his senior year for cheating on an exam, but he was later allowed to return and graduate.

Did John F Kennedy Have An Affair?

Some people believe that Kennedy did have an affair, based on rumors and innuendo. Others believe that he was faithful to his wife, Jackie. Ultimately, only Kennedy himself knows the answer to this question.

How Much Is A John F Kennedy Silver Dollar Worth?

A John F Kennedy silver dollar is worth about $24.

John F Kennedy

What Was John F Kennedy’s Leadership Style?

John F Kennedy’s leadership style was very much about setting a vision and then inspiring others to help him achieve it. He was very good at articulating what he wanted to achieve and then motivating others to get behind him. He was also very effective at building coalitions and compromising when necessary.

What Was The Foreign Policy Of John F Kennedy?

John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy was developed in response to a rapidly changing world. The Cold War was the primary focus of Kennedy’s foreign policy. He worked to contain the spread of communism and to limit the power of the Soviet Union. Kennedy also placed a high priority on the promotion of democracy and human rights. He supported the civil rights movement and worked to end apartheid in South Africa. Kennedy also increased American involvement in the Vietnam War.

When Is John F Kennedy’s Birthday?

John F Kennedy’s birthday is on May 29th.

Did the CIA Kill John F Kennedy?

Some people believe that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, while others believe that the CIA was not involved. There is no clear evidence one way or the other, so the answer to this question remains a mystery.

What If John F Kennedy Survived?

If John F Kennedy had survived his assassination attempt, he would have continued to serve as the President of the United States. He would have been a popular president, as he was before his assassination. Kennedy would have continued to work towards his goals of peace and civil rights. He would have been remembered as one of the great presidents in American history.

Where Is John F Kennedy’s Brain?

John F. Kennedy’s brain is missing. It was removed from his body during the autopsy following his assassination, and it has never been found. There are many theories about what happened to it, but the most likely explanation is that it was simply lost in the confusion and chaos of the aftermath of the assassination.

If John F. Kennedy got in a time machine and took it to today, what would he do?

If John F. Kennedy got in a time machine and took it to today, he would be amazed by the technological advances. He would also be interested in the current political landscape and the issues that are important to Americans today. He would also be curious about how his legacy has been remembered and honored in the present day.

10 Quotes from John F. Kennedy

1. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” 2. “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” 3. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” 4. “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender, or submission.” 5. “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum peril.” 6. “So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.” 7. “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” 8. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” 9. “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” 10. “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

In conclusion…

John F. Kennedy was a influential and charismatic president who is remembered for his accomplishments and his tragic death. He was born into a wealthy family but his time in the Navy during World War II and as a journalist gave him a different perspective. He was elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate before becoming president in 1960. During his time in office he worked on civil rights, the space program, and the Vietnam War. He was assassinated in 1963 while in Dallas, Texas and was succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy’s death was a shock to the nation and the world.

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U.S. Presidents

John f. kennedy.

35th president of the United States

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

• Kennedy supposedly wrote his own spy book, but he never released it.

• During stressful meetings, Kennedy liked to doodle sailboats.

• JFK donated his entire presidential salary to charity.

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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  • World Biography

John F. Kennedy Jr. Biography

Born: November 25, 1960 Washington, D.C. Died: July 16, 1999 Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts American magazine publisher and lawyer

John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), avoided politics and followed his own path as a magazine publisher. After attending his own father's funeral as a child, Kennedy, Jr., saw a series of early deaths in his family. He himself was claimed by a tragic accident in the prime of his life.

President's son

John F. Kennedy Jr. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.

While campaigning in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, the president was shot and killed. Just three months earlier, the family had grieved when new baby Patrick died two days after his birth. The death of John F. Kennedy shocked the nation, and the image of the president's three-year-old son at the funeral, wearing a short coat that revealed his bare knees, saluting his father's coffin as it passed, was heartbreaking.

Always in the public eye

In 1964 Jackie Kennedy moved with her children to an apartment in New York City, where she hoped they might be able to avoid the media. The family would soon suffer another difficult loss. On June 6, 1968, the late president's brother, Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), who had become a father figure to his nephew and niece, was assassinated in California while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Four months later, Jackie Kennedy married the wealthy businessman Aristotle Onassis (1906–1975).

The young Kennedy would sometimes get into fights with reporters and photographers who followed him and his sister around. The media criticized him for being self-centered and for his less than outstanding record at school. After high school he became more serious about his education. First, he studied environmental issues at a school in Africa. He would later return to Africa following his freshman year at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. While in Africa he worked with a mining firm in Johannesburg, South Africa, and met student and government leaders in Zimbabwe. During his college years he also worked with the Peace Corps in Guatemala to help earthquake victims.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in American history in 1982, Kennedy studied at the University of Delhi in India. When he returned to the United States he went to work for the New York City Office of Business Development in 1984. In 1986 he entered New York University Law School, mainly to please his mother. At the 1988 Democratic National Convention he gave a speech to introduce his uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy (1932–), that earned him a two-minute standing ovation and led many to wonder if he was preparing to run for office. He passed his bar exam (a test that a person must pass before he or she is allowed to practice law) on the third try and was hired in August 1989 as an assistant prosecutor in the Manhattan office of New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau (1919–). He won all six of the cases that he prosecuted in court before leaving the position in 1993.

New ventures

In September 1995 Kennedy cofounded George magazine, which had the slogan "Not politics as usual." He wrote essays and interviewed people for the publication. Some observers suggested that his magazine venture was a way for him to gain the public-affairs knowledge that he would need in order to run for office, but he denied that he was planning to enter politics. On September 21, 1996, he married Carolyn Bessette (1966–1999) in a private ceremony on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. It was one of the few major events in his life during which he managed to avoid publicity. He and his wife appeared to be a happy couple as they made their home in New York.

On July 16, 1999, Kennedy, his wife, and her sister Lauren Bessette (1964–1999) were declared missing at sea after their plane crashed into the water near the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Kennedy was an amateur pilot who had earned his license in April 1998. All three bodies were eventually recovered from the wreckage and buried at sea on July 22, 1999.

For More Information

Blow, Richard. American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2002.

Hinman, Bonnie. John F. Kennedy, Jr. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.

Landau, Elaine. John F. Kennedy, Jr. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.

Leigh, Wendy. Prince Charming: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story. New York: Dutton, 1993.

Reed, J. D., Kyle Smith, and Jill Smolowe. John F. Kennedy Jr.: A Biography. Chicago: Time, 1999.

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biography of jfk

JFK Jr. Was a Capable Pilot. Invisible Illusions Doomed His Final Flight

Twenty-five years ago, this chilling phenomenon led to the tragic—but preventable—plane crash that left America in mourning.

john f kennedy jr stands and speaks, he wears a black suit jacket, white dress shirt and red polka dot tie

Twenty-five years ago, the United States mourned the tragic death of John F. Kennedy Jr. , who died with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy , and her sister, Lauren Bessette, in a plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, on July 16, 1999.

Although he chose to focus on a career in publishing instead of following directly in the footsteps of his father, President John F. Kennedy , and his uncles, Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy , many Americans still saw JFK Jr. as a future political leader and considered him “the closest thing to homegrown royalty.”

In the aftermath of the plane crash, people flocked to conspiracy theories to explain JFK Jr.’s untimely death. Or they evoked the idea of a “Kennedy curse,” connecting his plane crash to the assassinations of JFK and RFK.

Instead, the truth is much simpler. It wasn’t a supernatural force or conspiracy that caused John F. Kennedy Jr. to crash his plane—it was a common phenomenon called spatial disorientation, which has affected pilots for over a century.

What Is Spatial Disorientation?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines spacial orientation as “our natural ability to maintain our body orientation and/or posture in relation to the surrounding environment at rest and during motion.” Genetically speaking, the FAA says, humans are built to stay properly spatially oriented on the ground; flying in the air, then, is “hostile and unfamiliar to the body,” and it leads to “sensory conflicts that make spatial orientation difficult,” if not impossible, to pull off.

Spatial disorientation can manifest in several ways, including “Aerial Perspective Illusions,” which can trick pilots into up- or down-sloping their descent in a manner ill-suited for the actual runway, and “Autokinetic Illusions,” which “[give] you the impression that a stationary object is moving in front of the airplane’s path,” according to the FAA.

In fact, there’s a chance you’ve experienced a form of spatial disorientation yourself, even if you’ve never flown a plane. Here’s how the FAA explains another potential effect of spatial disorientation, called “Vection Illusions”:

“A common example is when you are stopped at a traffic light in your car and the car next to you edges forward. Your brain interprets this peripheral visual information as though you are moving backwards and makes you apply additional pressure to the brakes. A similar illusion can happen while taxiing an aircraft.”

Five to 10 percent of aviation accidents are due to spatial disorientation, and 90 percent of those accidents are fatal, according to the FAA.

Pilots have been grappling with spatial disorientation for over a century. In 1918, for example, Army Air Corps pilot William C. Ocker famously experienced a graveyard spiral when his plane turned while he thought he was in level flight. While Ocker survived this terrifying experience, it caused him to invent both the gyrocompass and the altitude indicator, and advocate for flying with instrument assistance as opposed to “ blind flying .”

“If you experience a visual illusion during flight,” the FAA advises, “have confidence in your instruments and ignore all conflicting signals your body gives you. Accidents usually happen as a result of a pilot’s indecision to rely on the instruments.”

How Did JFK Jr. Crash His Plane?

front page of the daily news newspaper features a photo of caroline kennedy and john f kennedy jr smiling and wearing formal attire, headline reads lost jfk jr, wife presumed dead in plane crash off vineyard

John F. Kennedy Jr. became a symbol of American hope and resilience when he was famously photographed saluting the casket of his late father on the day he turned 3 years old. Although he was saddled with huge political expectations from a young age, JFK Jr. instead entered the world of magazines, launching George in 1995. The next year, Kennedy married his longtime girlfriend, Carolyn Bessette.

john f kennedy jr stands next to a magazine display and holds a book and a wallet, he looks to the left and wears a navy suit jacket, white dress shirt, and dark colored tie

By 1999, however, JFK Jr. was dealing with problems in both his professional and personal lives. As Biography.com has previously reported :

“ G eorge was expected to lose nearly $10 million in 1999, according to The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America’s First Family for 150 Years by Edward Klein. Michael Berman, a founding partner in the publication, had recently exited the business, publisher Hachette was reportedly losing interest in the title and Kennedy was looking for alternate sources of financing for the venture.”

George ’s struggles were taking a toll on John and Carolyn’s marriage, as she felt the magazine “was receiving most of her husband’s attention.” Two days before their fatal flight, Carolyn’s sister, Lauren, arranged for the couple to have lunch and try and rectify things.

John and Carolyn were set to attend a wedding that weekend in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and they decided they’d travel with Lauren and drop her off at Martha’s Vineyard along the way. Since JFK Jr. had earned his pilot’s license in 1998 and had just bought a Piper Saratoga light plane a few months before the lunch meeting, he’d fly from Essex County Airport in New Jersey to their destinations.

But there was a problem: At the time, John was wearing a cast on his ankle from a recent paragliding injury. The day after the lunch meeting, he went to Lenox Hill Hospital to have it removed, though he was still required to walk on crutches.

On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr., Caroline Bessette Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette all arrived at Essex County Airport and boarded Kennedy’s Piper Saratoga. “Coinciding with sunset,” Biography.com previously shared , “the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the plane for takeoff at 8:38 p.m.”

After takeoff, Kennedy checked in with the control tower at Martha’s Vineyard, but when the plane failed to arrive on time, the Piper Saratoga and its passengers were reported missing.

a coast guard helicopter hovers near the oceans surface, causing wake in the empty water

Search teams discovered fragments of the plane on July 19. The next day, they found debris from the shattered plane scattered across a broad area of the seabed. On July 21, they found and brought ashore the bodies of the three passengers.

Contrary to any conspiracy theories, a report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reconstructed the likely fate of the aircraft, determining it “hit the water at about 9:41 p.m. at Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts.” When investigators examined the plane, they found no evidence of mechanical issues causing the crash, which killed its passengers upon impact.

While the NTSB report mentioned “haze and the dark night” as crash factors, it concluded that the probable cause was “the pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation.”

“Within 100 days before the accident,” the NTSB report found, “...the pilot had completed about 50 percent of a formal instrument training course.”

The real story of what killed JFK Jr., laid out within the NTSB’s report, is that of an entirely avoidable death, from something that affects nearly everybody who sits in a cockpit. (As the FAA points out, “most pilots [experience a visual illusion] at one time or another.”)

Pilots can specifically train to spot signs of spatial disorientation and use simulators, like a Barany chair, GYRO, or Virtual Reality Spatial Disorientation Demonstrator, to safely experience ground-based sensory illusions and understand what spatial disorientation feels like.

Twenty-five years after the tragic deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette, spatial disorientation still poses a serious risk to those who take to the skies. But with proper care and training, pilots can effectively manage and mitigate it.

Headshot of Michael Natale

Michael Natale is the news editor for Best Products , covering a wide range of topics like gifting, lifestyle, pop culture, and more. He has covered pop culture and commerce professionally for over a decade. His past journalistic writing can be found on sites such as Yahoo! and Comic Book Resources , his podcast appearances can be found wherever you get your podcasts, and his fiction can’t be found anywhere, because it’s not particularly good. 

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See JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy Through the Years: From Their Early Days to Last Appearance

From their private wedding to their tragic deaths, there is plenty to remember about the power couple

biography of jfk

John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy were one of America's "it" couples of the '90s.

Tying the knot on Sept. 21, 1996, the two quickly became a national spectacle. As a high-profile magazine editor — and the only son of former President John F. Kennedy — John was already used to being in the public eye. However, his marriage to Calvin Klein publicist Carolyn only heightened the media frenzy, which reportedly left her feeling constantly on edge. 

" She genuinely felt she was in danger ," Carolyn's college friend, Sasha Chermayeff, said in RoseMarie Terenzio and Liz McNeil 's JFK Jr.: An Intimate Oral Biography (2024). "The paranoia set in when she kind of let her mind spin off: 'What if somebody wants to kidnap me?' After they got married, it just escalated and escalated and escalated."

But despite the drastic lifestyle change, their relationship remained resilient. "They would love hard, and fight hard," Ariel Paredes, a close friend of the couple, told PEOPLE in July 2022. "But they were very much in love ."

Unfortunately, their love story ended on July 16, 1999. En route to Martha's Vineyard, John — piloting the plane with Carolyn and her sister, Laura, on board — crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all three instantly . On the 25th anniversary of the accident, PEOPLE looks back on a romance cut short by tragedy. 

John F. Kennedy Jr. Was Raised in the Spotlight

From the day he was born — 17 days after his father was elected president — John F. Kennedy Jr.'s life played out in public. During his father's time in the White House, toddler John-John (a nickname invented by a journalist who misheard the elder Kennedy) delighted in hiding under his father's desk.

John F. Kennedy Jr. Never Escaped the Press

Though he only lived in the White House for three years, the public memory of Camelot would follow John F. Kennedy Jr. throughout the rest of his life, as his successes, failures and relationships all became grist for public consumption.

Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy Was an Ordinary Woman from Connecticut

Carolyn Bessette's early life lacked the glamour that surrounded her eventual husband. However, once she landed a job at Calvin Klein and moved to New York, Bessette traveled in fabulous circles where one might meet (and fall in love with) a Kennedy.

“She was joyful and buoyant and wanted to partake of everything in New York," Elizabeth Beller wrote about Carolyn in her 2024 biography, Once Upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy . "She was a warm, effervescent and vivacious person who was misrepresented in the press."

John F. Kennedy Jr. Met Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy at Her Calvin Klein Job

Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty 

In the spring of 1992, John met Carolyn during a fitting at Calvin Klein and asked for her number.

"John invited her to join his group at a gala dinner,” Kelly Rector, Calvin's former wife and assistant, shared in Once Upon a Time . “Sitting next to him was another woman that Carolyn either mistook as his date, or actually was his date.”

That May, John and Carolyn were spotted in deep conversation during a fundraiser and began dating on and off. For some of that time, John was seen publicly with his actress girlfriend, Daryl Hannah , with whom he broke up in 1994.

Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1995, he invited Carolyn to go fishing in Martha's Vineyard, where he proposed.

The Couple Married in a Secret Ceremony

Thomas S. England/Getty

On Sept. 21, 1996, the couple exchanged vows during a top-secret wedding. To avoid the merciless press, they held their ceremony inside the First African Baptist Church on a secluded island off the coast of Georgia. 

With only 40 guests present (including John's uncle, Ted Kennedy ), trusted photographer Denis Reggie captured the iconic photo of the newlyweds leaving the church —  which later landed on the cover of PEOPLE. 

"It was an incredibly magical moment," Reggie recalled to Vanity Fair in September 2021. "John reached for the hand of Carolyn; she was caught off guard. I'm walking backwards in the light rain at dusk, and John does this amazing gesture, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips."

Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy Had Impeccable Fashion Sense

Evan Agostini/Getty 

Always dressed to the nines, Carolyn was well-known for her strong sense of style — effortlessly rocking unconventional color combinations while avoiding logos and bold prints.

"It transcends time," Sunita Kumar Nair, author of CBK: Caroline Bessette Kennedy: A Life in Fashion , told PEOPLE in November 2023. "What she wore in the '90s isn't dated in any way, and we see that there are pieces that she wore that still appeal to us."

Decades later, Carolyn's fashion legacy is praised by newer generations on social media, with popular Instagram accounts such as Carolyn Iconic and CBK's Closet memorializing both her distinctive style and poised nature. 

"A new generation has discovered her ," Terenzio told PEOPLE in July 2021. "Her style is not just about fashion but also the way she carried herself and her quiet confidence and her relatability ... and I think that comes through. As private as she was, I think she would be amused and delighted and proud that her influence lives on."

They Were Heavily Pursued by the Press

After the couple's marriage, swarms of photographers followed Carolyn and John's every move. The new bride was said to resent the intrusions , turning down every interview request she received.

“She was more vulnerable to scrutiny than people realized,” Beller wrote in Once Upon a Time . “She made sure she looked as perfect as possible so nothing could be picked apart in the press — such as her Yohji Yamamoto dresses which the designer himself once described as 'armor.' In a way, that was to protect herself from the scrutiny."

They Faced Multiple Problems in Their Marriage

Stephane Cardinale/Sygma/Getty

John and Carolyn's romance did not come without challenges , with constant public scrutiny straining their union.

According to historian Steven M. Gillon, author of the 2019 biography America’s Reluctant Prince , “[Carolyn] felt trapped. Many close friends suspected that she had been self-medicating with drugs. The media was hounding her and she couldn’t figure out how to have a career. She was uncomfortable going out.”

“[John] struggled with her inability to cope with the public nature of their life,” Brian Steel, a fellow assistant DA in the New York County District Attorney’s office, said in SPIKE TV’s 2016 documentary, I Am JFK Jr . “She needed to work through that, but he never wavered in his commitment to helping her.

Their relationship was characterized by "an intense passion," often leading to "unbelievable fights." In fact, John allegedly confided to a friend in spring 1996 that he was considering separating from Carolyn. 

"If anyone tells you they know what was going to happen in that relationship, they’re lying," one of John’s closest friends shared in America’s Reluctant Prince. "John and Carolyn didn’t know what was going to happen in their relationship."

They Were Intent on Fixing Their Marriage

Tyler Mallory/Newsmakers/Liaison Agency

Despite the intense issues in their marriage, friends say they were committed to making it work . 

“Emotionally there was some distance that hadn’t been there before, but that happens with couples,” close friend Sasha Chermayeff shared in J. Randy Taraborrelli's 2019 book, The Kennedy Heirs . “They were going through the first five or so years when you learn what you’re getting yourself into, when you’re no longer blinded by love and then it gets intense. It was difficult but they were deeply connected.

By April 1998, John and Carolyn were in couples counseling. “Both wanted to improve their marriage," Taraborrelli wrote. "John didn’t want to be one of those Kennedy men who didn’t care how his wife feels.”

Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy Began to Relax More in Front of the Press

Though she remained intensely private, eventually Carolyn began making more official appearances alongside John. She was taking more of a public interest in her husband's magazine, George, and appeared less tense around the media than previously noted.

This aspect of her personality was more familiar to her friends. "She was the opposite of buttoned up," Beller noted in Once Upon a Time . "That was a side of her that you can’t see in photographs when she’s being chased down.”

They Made Their Final Public Appearance at a JFK Library Dinner

In one of their last public appearances together, the couple visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for the annual bestowal of the Profiles in Courage Award in May 1999, just two months before their deaths.

John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy Died in a Plane Crash

When America mourned the couple in the summer of 1999, they weren't just reflexively memorializing another dead Kennedy. They were also mourning for the loss of potential the pair represented: two young people, it seemed, who could have done anything.

Related Articles

John F. Kennedy Jr. & Carolyn Bessette’s Relationship Drama Unveiled in New Book

'Once Upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy,' explores the unknown details of JFK Jr. and Carolyn's relationship.

FILE PHOTO: John F. Kennedy, Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy arrive at the annual John F. Kennedy Library Foundation dinner and Profiles in Courage awards in honor of the former President's 82nd Birthday, Sunday, May 23, 1999 at the Kennedy Library in Boston, MA. (Photo by Justin Ide)

Details about John F. Kennedy Jr . ‘s relationship with Carolyn Bessett have come to light in a new book. According to author Elizabeth Beller’s new book, Once Upon a Time: The Captivating Life of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy , the couple were experiencing issues in their marriage before they died together in a plane crash in 1999.

During an interview with Fox News published on Tuesday, July 16, Elizabeth noted, “Several sources corroborated that they were in marriage counseling.”

“I see it as a positive that they were taking meaningful steps to work on their issues. And I do believe things were getting better,” she added before explaining in more detail what was happening between John and Carolyn. “In 1999, there were ebbs and flows in their marriage. [Their pal] Carole Radziwill said they looked happy and in love. Many other friends said the same thing. But it was a very tense time for them. John’s best friend and cousin, Anthony Radziwill, was very ill [with cancer]. John and Carolyn were very concerned about him. And there was also all that outside pressure.”

Additionally, the biography author explained that it was “impossible for Carolyn, who had always been a hard worker, to continue working with the press hounding her at all times.”

“She was suddenly overwhelmed by the press scrutiny,” Elizabeth claimed while giving her opinion. “I think it was debilitating for her and I think it sent her into a depression. At this time, she was thinking about what else she could do.”

While Carolyn considered “making documentary films to represent the underserved,” she still “needed to see what John’s next step was going to be if he was going to run for office and follow in his family’s footsteps.”

“There was so much expectation because of his last name,” Elizabeth pointed out about Carolyn’s marriage. “John was figuring things out, and she had to figure things out, too.”

On July 16, 1999, John was flying a single-engine plane while traveling from New Jersey to Martha’a Vineyard with Carolyn and her sister, Lauren Bessette. All three of them died after the plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean that day.

Remembering John F. Kennedy Jr., 25 years after his death

A q&a with the authors of the book ‘jfk jr. an intimate oral biography,’ which looks back at the fantastic life, tragic loss, and enduring legacy of america’s beloved son..

From left: John F. Kennedy Jr. and his uncle, Ted Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy Jr. captured the world’s heart in an iconic photo saluting his father’s casket during the president’s funeral in 1963. The mystique surrounding his life hit a groundswell when Kennedy came into his own as a dashing and accomplished NY assistant district attorney in the 1980s and a publisher of George Magazine in the 1990s.

Now, 25 years after the plane crash that took the life of Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren Bessette, he is being celebrated in a new book, “ JFK Jr: An Intimate Oral Biography .” Former Kennedy executive assistant RoseMarie Terenzio and PEOPLE editor at large Liz McNeil interviewed more than 200 Kennedy friends, confidants, and colleagues for an honest, vivid portrait of the man behind the Kennedy myth. The Boston Globe talked with Terenzio and McNeil about Kennedy’s friendships, his relationship with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and his legacy.

A month before his assassination in Dallas, John F. Kennedy, who had started to prepare for the 1964 presidential campaign, invited the photographer Stanley Tretick to the White House for a series of photographs with his son John Jr., taking advantage of Jackie's absence, who protected her children from the media.

GLOBE: JFK Jr.’s early years had profound sadness between longing for his dad when he was alive, to growing up fatherless after his death.

RMT: In the Collegiate [the NYC private school Kennedy attended] chapter of the book, especially the story of football legend Rosey Grier accompanying him on Parents’ Night when he’s in sixth-grade — it’s then that John understands he doesn’t have a father. He also has all these people around him who have memories, images, affection, and emotional connection to his father, but unfortunately John doesn’t. That’s where I saw the searching, the seeking, the trying to uncover as much information as possible about his father in John.

LM: Rose told me Rosey Grier would call the George office like once a week to check on John, right?

RMT: Yeah, John and Rosey talked all the time. And John always took Rosey’s calls. I remember Rosey came up to the office and he was massive, I mean he was huge. And Rosey was the sweetest, kindest man — so gentle. They had a real connection and affection for one another.

GLOBE: President Kennedy is often credited for his civil rights work, so it seems natural that JFK Jr. would have such diverse friendships. But it’s also pleasantly surprising because privileged or not, it’s very easy to stay in similar racial, socio-economic friend groups.


RMT: Not only did John have this diverse friend group but many of these people, who went all the way back to grade school, were still friends of his literally until the day he died. His friends say John touched and changed their lives, but I think it was the other way around. Each of these people left their mark on John as well.

GLOBE: During his bachelor days the media depicted him as a real ladies’ man, linked to celebrities including Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker, but you found that he was a serial monogamist and a one-woman kind of guy. Why do you think the press got that aspect of his life wrong?

biography of jfk

RMT: Because he was PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive! John was young and handsome and from a prominent family. But if you think about who raised him, it was a mom and a sister that he had a beautiful close relationship with, and he had a lot of respect for women.

GLOBE: George Magazine, which launched in 1995 , mixed politics and celebrity in an eclectic way. In hindsight it was a publication ahead of its time. RoseMarie, you worked there. Had John lived, do you think George would still be around?

RMT: I do, and I think so because John had ideas for George that went beyond the magazine. He understood the whole idea of taking it online, he was already thinking about how to merge entertainment and politics in an online version. If you look at what’s on the internet, George was the first iteration of The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Politico, and Axios is now.

LM: Back then we probably thought George was unusual. As a journalist, I was really interested in the types of people John was interviewing for George. A lot of subjects were connected to his father; like George Wallace, who challenged his dad, and Gerald Ford, who at the time was the last living member of the Warren Commission . As Rose mentioned, we’re now reading the outlet descendants of George every day.

GLOBE: Based on your interviews do you think the Kennedy legacy weighed heavily on John’s life and career choices?

RMT: Knowing and working with him every day I can say John really didn’t see it that way. When asked that question, he used to say, ‘I don’t see it as a legacy, to me it’s just my family.’ He felt there was a lot more privilege than burden that came with it, and a sense of responsibility.

LM: I’m reminded of something Steve Gillon, John’s friend from Brown, said. Steve also wrote a biography on John and knew him well. Steve said John said, “I don’t want to do what people expect me to do.” Steve said around the time that John’s life ended it looked like he might want to do the thing that people expected him to do — which was enter the world of politics. But John had to figure that out and come to that conclusion himself.

GLOBE: The Carolyn Bessette and JFK Jr. courtship seemed like a fairy tale. Did it appear that way from your perspective?

RMT: It was more than this fantastical fairy-tale romance, they had a friendship — they were buddies. They talked, gossiped together. They had this connection that was like best friends. They shared a sense of humor, teasing with jokes back and forth.

LM: From a journalist perspective they were a magical couple. They had that New York, downtown kind of element to them. You could sort of relate to them. We were entranced by them.

GLOBE: The marriage was a fairy tale, until it wasn’t. They had issues that partially stemmed from his fame overshadowing her existence. How much did the press pursuit of them contribute to the challenges in their relationship?

John F. Kennedy Jr. heading to work on his first day as Manhattan assistant district attorney.

RMT: They needed more time. They were thinking about starting a family, and looking at houses outside the city. We also include [in the book] them meeting with a security firm. Because I think Carolyn was fearful of having a baby in the city and walking around where paparazzi could jump out and try to get photos.

GLOBE: Kennedy often took the subway to work. Even boxing heavyweight champion Mike Tyson advised him to get a security team, but early on John didn’t want one.

LM: Right. A lot of famous people have lots of layers, layers, and layers of protection around them. John didn’t have any. Instead, there was this trust and good will he built up. The reporters and photographers were always there from the beginning. I can’t imagine what it would be like to marry into something like that. It makes you realize how vulnerable Carolyn was.

GLOBE: On July 16, 1999, John piloted a single-engine Piper Saratoga plane with plans to drop off his sister-in-law Lauren in Martha’s Vineyard and then continue to Hyannis Port with Carolyn to attend his cousin Rory Kennedy’s wedding. But the plane crashed, killing them all. How hard was it revisiting their deaths for the book?

RMT: It was terrifying. When I read about it, talk about it I still feel a little bit of a knot in my stomach. And it’s not that I haven’t accepted it, but it’s that feeling — that physical gut feeling of discomfort, shock, fear, it being scary. All those things.

LM: There was disbelief. You feel like you lost something. There are a lot of people you report on at PEOPLE, but I certainly didn’t see them Rollerblading from time to time. I remember seeing John and Carolyn out in the East Village. So, there’s a real sadness. Your heart breaks all over again.

GLOBE: If JFK Jr. had lived, he would have been 64 years old this year. What would he be doing now? Would he be president? His impressive introduction of his Uncle Ted Kennedy at the 1988 Democratic National Convention made it seem possible.

RMT: That’s a tough one. I don’t like making those predictions, because I’m not a clairvoyant. But, I believe he could have been president if he wanted to. I also think the world and political climate would have been different [if he lived]. As I said before, people seem to behave better when John was in the world.

John F. Kennedy Jr., right, and Carolyn Bessette at the “Profile In Courage Awards” in 1998.

LM: John represented a lot of hope for people, and his parents represented a lot of hope. In the world we live in now, that almost feels like a foreign idea, especially with the headlines we read every day. I liked writing this part of the book because I thought, “It’s possible, you can bring people together in politics.” John really represented that. Maybe we can all be inspired by that a little bit.

GLOBE: What is John’s legacy, what can be learned from his life?

RMT: His legacy is really George Magazine. And the notion that different ideas, sides of the political spectrum and the social spectrum can co-exist and have meaningful relationships and dialogue. That’s a lesson we can all learn from John.

LM: I think his friends and friendships were his legacy. He really had a gift for friendship and deep relationships with people. I like to think that’s part of his legacy, too.

Ronke Idowu Reeves is the Globe's SEO Editor, and a contributor to the books "Oprah: A Celebration at 70" and "PEOPLE Books: Special Edition Barbie."

JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette died in a plane crash 25 years ago. It fueled rumors of a 'Kennedy curse.'

  • John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister died in a 1999 plane crash near Martha's Vineyard.
  • The politician was just 38 years old when he died.
  • Rumors of a "Kennedy curse" were fueled by multiple family tragedies over the decades.

Insider Today

The Kennedy family has been subjected to many tragedies over the years, including two assassinations and a plane crash that took the lives of John F. Kennedy Jr. and two other passengers.

Twenty-five years ago, on July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and her older sister Lauren Bessette were killed in a plane crash off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. There were no survivors from the accident.

The deaths became a major news story and perpetuated rumors of a "Kennedy curse."

JFK Jr.'s father, former President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963. His uncle, Robert "Bobby" Kennedy, was assassinated five years later in 1968. And two years before JFK Jr.'s death, his cousin Michael Kennedy also died after hitting a tree while skiing in Aspen, Colorado.

Here's what we know about the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and two others.

John F. Kennedy Jr. frequently made headlines throughout the 1990s.

biography of jfk

As the son of a president and a member of one of America's most prominent political dynasties , John F. Kennedy Jr. was destined for the spotlight.

JFK Jr. was born on November 25, 1960, just two weeks after his father was elected president. His father was assassinated on November 22, 1963, just three days shy of JFK Jr.'s third birthday.

History reported that JFK Jr., affectionately nicknamed "John-John" by the public, attended the funeral on his birthday and was famously photographed saluting his father's casket.

Throughout much of his adolescence and adulthood, he mostly remained out of the public eye.

However, according to History, his public image began to change after he introduced his uncle, Ted Kennedy, at the Democratic National Convention in 1988.

In September 1988, People named Kennedy, who was then a 27-year-old third-year law student at NYU, the "Sexiest Man Alive."

JFK Jr. also dated a few celebrities throughout the 1990s, including "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker and Cindy Crawford, according to Town & Country .

John F. Kennedy Jr. began dating Carolyn Bessette, a publicist for Calvin Klein, in 1994.

biography of jfk

Tall, sophisticated, and beautiful, JFK Jr.'s new girlfriend captivated the public.

After two years of dating, the pair married in an intimate ceremony on Cumberland Island, Georgia, People reported.

While their wedding ceremony was private, their relationship was anything but, thanks to the prying eyes of the paparazzi.

biography of jfk

The media attention may have even inspired Kennedy to get his pilot's license in 1998.

"That was some of the happiest times he ever had. Floating around with the buzzards in his Buckeye [plane]. It was the freedom," his close friend Robbie Littell told "JFK Jr: An Intimate Oral Biography" author RoseMarie Terenzio, according to People .

"He said, 'It's the only place I can go where no one is bothering me. I have complete silence, and no one can get to me except the air traffic controllers.' Maybe that gives you insight into what he was really dealing with on the ground," his college friend Gary Ginsberg said, People reported.

John F. Kennedy Jr. was traveling to Martha's Vineyard with his wife and her older sister when their plane was reported missing.

biography of jfk

The Washington Post reported that Kennedy departed Essex County Airport near Fairfield, New Jersey, at around 8:38 p.m. on Friday, July 16, 1999. The sun was already beginning to set and "hazy conditions," which had been reported earlier in the evening, were getting worse, People reported.

Kennedy planned to drop his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette on Martha's Vineyard before traveling to his family's compound in Hyannis Port with Carolyn. The couple was due to attend his cousin Rory Kennedy's wedding the following day, according to People .

However, the plane never landed in Martha's Vineyard.

An unidentified driver reported the plane had failed to arrive at Martha's Vineyard Airport as expected, according to the Post, citing an NBC report. It kicked off a search for the missing aircraft in the early hours of July 17.

The Kennedy family notified the Cape Cod Coast Guard that the couple had not made it back to Hyannis.

biography of jfk

The Washington Post reported that the Coast Guard then began investigating whether the plane had landed at another airport.

By 4 a.m., the Coast Guard began searching for the missing plane, and by 7:30 a.m., the Air Force and Coast Guard had launched 20 aircraft vehicles and two boats to search the area between Long Island and Martha's Vineyard, according to the Post's timeline.

On Sunday afternoon, what was presumed to be debris from the plane was found on Philbin Beach on Martha's Vineyard. Among the debris was a headrest that was later concluded to be from the missing aircraft and a black suitcase that contained Lauren Bessette's business card.

Rory Kennedy's wedding, scheduled for 6 p.m. that night, was put on hold as the family awaited more news.

The Washington Post reported that after more debris was found in the days to follow, the search-and-rescue mission became a search-and-recovery mission.

All three of the plane's passengers were now presumed dead. John F. Kennedy Jr. was 38 years old. Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy was 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette was 34.

Five days after the crash, the bodies of John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette were recovered.

biography of jfk

The debris field was identified off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, relatively near the estate once owned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Kennedy's mother, The New York Times reported.

The bodies of John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette were discovered by Navy divers on July 22, 1999, after an extensive search approved by President Bill Clinton, per another New York Times report.

The bodies of the crash victims, which were ''near and under'' the main body of the aircraft, were still strapped in, according to the Times.

Details began to emerge about what led to the crash.

biography of jfk

Kennedy had only flown about 72 hours without a flight instructor, and had only about 300 total hours of flying experience, The New York Times reported in July 2000. He had reportedly rejected an offer to have a flight instructor accompany the group on their journey.

As a newly trained pilot, Kennedy was not licensed to fly and navigate the air using flying instruments. Instead, he had only trained to fly using sight alone, which would have been extremely difficult in dark or hazy conditions such as those on the night of July 16.

Warren Morningstar, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, told the Times that "flying at night over featureless terrain or water, and particularly in haze or in overcast, is a prime setup for spatial disorientation."

About an hour into the trip, the plane's flight path became irregular as it began its descent into Martha's Vineyard, indicating that the pilot may have become disoriented by the darkness of the sky and the water, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded.

"His flight path into the water is consistent with what is known as a graveyard spiral," Jeff Guzzetti, an NTSB investigator in the accident, told Terenzio, according to People. "The airplane makes a spiral nose down … kind of like going down a drain. The plane went into one final turn and it stayed in that turn pretty much all the way down to the ocean."

The aircraft went down in the water about 7 miles from its intended destination of Martha's Vineyard.

biography of jfk

According to The Washington Post , the plane did not send out a distress call. Instead, it made its final descent and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in under 30 seconds.

Kennedy, Kennedy-Bessette, and Bessette's bodies were cremated and buried at sea off the coast of Martha's Vineyard on July 22, 1999.

"We are filled with unspeakable grief and sadness by the loss of John and Carolyn and Lauren Bessette," Ted Kennedy said in a statement on behalf of the Kennedy family, according to The Washington Post. "John was a shining light in all our lives and in the lives of the nation and the world that first came to know him as a little boy."

As the country mourned the loss, rumors of a "Kennedy curse" were reignited.

biography of jfk

The extensive search captured the nation's attention, as did the tragedy of the three young passengers' deaths. Yet another tragic accident for the Kennedy family, the plane crash only added to rumors of a Kennedy family curse.

"I've looked high and low and cannot find another family since the ancient Greek House of Atreus that has suffered more calamities and misfortunes than the Kennedys," Edward Klein, the author of "The Kennedy Curse: Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years," said, according to The Washington Post .

While there are many logical reasons for the fateful plane crash, it's nevertheless poignant that the Kennedy family, one of the wealthiest and most influential political families in the world, has suffered so much tragedy throughout the last 100 years.

"The humanity of their story is what keeps us engaged," Kennedy family biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli told NBC News in 2019.

"We peer behind the scenes of their wealthy lifestyle, and we see, for all the advantages they have, tragedy can still happen."

biography of jfk

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Marshall Allen and Chucho Valdés included in 2025 class of NEA Jazz Masters

Nat Chinen.

Nate Chinen

Marshall Allen performs at the 2024 A Great Night In Harlem Gala at The Apollo Theater in New York City in March 2024

Marshall Allen, who will be included in the class of Jazz Masters awarded by the NEA next year, performs onstage at the 2024 A Great Night In Harlem Gala at the Apollo Theater in New York City in March. Arturo Holmes/Getty Images hide caption

A saxophonist of otherworldly gusto, two pianists of impulsive eloquence and a critic with a pen nearly as sharp as his ears — these are just a few choice epithets for the 2025 class of NEA Jazz Masters, announced this morning by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The four new inductees — Marshall Allen, Marilyn Crispell , Chucho Valdés and Gary Giddins — will each receive $25,000 as part of their NEA Jazz Masters fellowship, which is often described as the nation’s highest honor for jazz. According to tradition, they will also be honored in a gala NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert next spring, presented in collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

“This class of NEA Jazz Masters represents the finest in free thinking musicians,” pianist Jason Moran , The Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz, says in a press statement. “Each has been an active and integral part of communities that have pushed the music forward to new heights.”

Allen fits that description and then some, as legacy bandleader of the Sun Ra Arkestra for nearly 30 years, and an indefatigable alto saxophonist in its ranks for more than 65. Born in Louisville, Ky., he is the senior member of the new NEA Jazz Masters class by a healthy margin: He turned 100 in May and has been basking in a celebratory spotlight ever since. But Allen, still a volatile and riveting improviser, isn’t the type to rest on his laurels. He’ll lead the Arkestra at the Newport Jazz Festival on Aug. 2 and continue on a tour that winds back to Philadelphia, their home turf, on Aug. 18.

Crispell, 77, was born in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore, though she has lived for decades in Woodstock, N.Y. With a personal expression at the piano ranging from crystalline beauty to eruptive ferocity, she’s been a prominent figure in the avant-garde for more than 40 years — the early part of which she spent in the acclaimed Anthony Braxton Quartet. Her own prolific output stretches across some 60 albums, the most recent of which, spi-raling horn , was released this spring.

Valdés, 82, is an exalted eminence of Afro-Cuban music — a founding member of Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna and co-founder of the trailblazing fusion spinoff Irakere , which won a Grammy for Best Latin Recording in 1980. Valdés has also racked up a handful of Grammys as a solo artist, and presides over a Cuban jazz scene shaped in no small part by his example. Two years ago, he reunited with an old Irakere bandmate, multi-reedist and 2005 NEA Jazz Master Paquito D’Rivera , to release I Missed You Too! — its title nodding to their estrangement after D’Rivera’s defection to the United States more than 40 years ago.

As for Giddins, 76, he is the 2025 recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, awarded each year to a figure whose contribution occurs mainly off the bandstand. A longtime critic with The Village Voice, he has also authored a two-volume biography of Bing Crosby and the acclaimed collection Visions of Jazz. “Critics begin and end as fans,” Giddins writes in a statement. “Our lives have been made infinitely better by this eternally absorbing, transfiguring music. I could not be more gratified by the NEA’s recognition, but to paraphrase [pianist] John Lewis, who famously said, ‘The reward for playing jazz is playing jazz,’ the reward for loving jazz is loving jazz.”

  • Chucho Valdes
  • Marilyn Crispell


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