John F. Kennedy - Key Events
John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as the thirty-fifth President of the United States.
Kennedy, fulfilling a campaign pledge, issues an executive order creating a temporary Peace Corps and asks Congress to authorize the program permanently. He appoints Sargent Shriver to head the organization.
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space.
On April 17, 1961, a brigade of about 1,500 Cuban exiles landed at Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the southern coast of Cuba. Their mission was to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro by inciting revolt among the Cuban people. Funded and supplied by the United States, this invasion ended in absolute failure with some of the exiles killed and many captured by Castro's army. Although President John F. Kennedy wanted American involvement in the operation to remain covert, signs of CIA sponsorship of the brigade were obvious. In addition, the President's decision not to provide American air support for the invasion made him appear weak. The disastrous invasion stands out as one of the major mistakes of Kennedy's presidency.
The plan for a covert invasion of Cuba originated in the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Supported by both President Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon, CIA Director Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, CIA deputy for planning, had trained anti-Castro forces in Guatemala in preparation for an invasion. Dulles and Bissell briefed Kennedy on the operation shortly after his election victory in November. Kennedy chose to reappoint Dulles to head the CIA in his administration.
Some in the administration warned Kennedy not to follow through with this attack. Liberals in the administration such as Chester Bowles, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and John Kenneth Galbraith felt that a Democratic administration should not carry out this kind of “adventurism.” In addition, some foreign policy experts, such as Dean Acheson, feared that the operation as planned was too small and would not succeed. Still, most of the President's advisers maintained that this operation would work and rid the United States of a Communist dictatorship 90 miles of the coast of Florida.
President Kennedy wanted to blur any connections between the American military and the Cuban operation. The American press threatened the secrecy of the mission, however, when they reported on the training of exiles and an impending invasion. Kennedy chose not to authorize any air strikes by American planes during the mission, fearing that a downed plane would expose the American role in the plan. The operation was limited to one round of air strikes in disguised planes followed by the CIA-trained exiles landing at the Bay of Pigs to invade Cuba.
On April 15, B-26 bombers from Nicaragua began the attack on Cuba. While they succeeded in destroying some of Castro's air force, their attack warned the Cuban leader of further assaults. When the invasion began on April 17, Castro quickly ordered his military forces to the area, trapping the exiles on the beach. By the next day, it was clear that the operation had failed. The planners had claimed that the invasion would spark an uprising in Cuba. However, the uprising failed to materialize. Kennedy, hoping to maintain American invisibility, refused to allow additional air strikes to salvage the disaster. In the end, some 115 men died, and the Cuban forces captured almost 1,200 exiles. Criticism of the administration soon poured in from all political perspectives; President Kennedy had failed in the first major test of his administration.
Black and white youths supported by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set out on the first of several “freedom rides” to challenge the lack of enforcement of ICC rules against racial discrimination in interstate travel. This mixed-race group of "Freedom Riders" travelled together on busses from Washington, D.C., passing through several southern states on the way to New Orleans, Louisiana. The Freedom Riders faced attacks and violence at the hands of those who supported segregation, including local police, leading to the injury and arrest of several Riders. Their efforts were successful in exposing the unlawful nature of the enforcement of segregation in bus travel and in inspiring similar efforts to rectify injustice across the United States.
Alan Shepard Jr. becomes the first American in space.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy in an address to Congress challenged the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon.” He asked Congress to find additional funds to support the nation's space program.
President Kennedy was committed to an aggressive space program. The Soviet Union had surpassed the United States in the space race by launching Sputnik, an artificial satellite, in 1957. Since space technology demonstrated potential weapons, this competition became an important aspect of the Cold War. Although Kennedy realized the importance of space exploration to the military, he remained firmly committed to a civilian-controlled program of manned space flights. With the encouragement of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy appealed to Congress to increase spending on the space program in the hopes of surpassing the Soviets.
Then, on February 20, 1962, Astronaut John Glenn aboard the Mercury craft Friendship 7 became the first American to orbit the earth. Both the Kennedy administration and the American people celebrated Glenn's space flight. But Kennedy did not live to see his dream come true when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in July 1969.
Read an excerpt of Kennedy's speech about the goal of sending a man to the moon.
Kennedy meets with Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev in Vienna. The conference fails to resolve conflict over the status of Berlin.
On August 13, 1961, East Germany began constructing a wall between the two sections of Berlin. The city, surrounded by Soviet-supported East Germany, had remained divided between the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France since the end of World War II. Refugees from East Germany and the eastern section of Berlin had been flooding into the western section of Berlin, creating an embarrassment for the Soviet and East German governments.
In June 1961, President John Kennedy met with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, but the conference failed to resolve the long-standing conflict over the status of Berlin. Khrushchev wanted the United States, Britain, and France to leave the western section of Berlin to Soviet-controlled East Germany since the city lay deep in the heart of East Germany. He threatened that he would disregard the Western Allies and make an unilateral treaty with East Germany if the status of Berlin was not resolved.
On July 25, Kennedy addressed the American people explaining the Soviet threat to West Berlin and the commitment of the United States to protect the city. The President appealed to Americans to make sacrifices to win this conflict and announced further increases in military spending. Despite these bellicose actions, Kennedy left open the possibility of negotiation, and he made no claims to the eastern sections of Berlin.
The Berlin Wall ended the movement of East German citizens into West Berlin. In an impromptu protest, thousands of Berliners gathered on both sides of the new barricade. Kennedy was under pressure to act, but privately expressed an unwillingness to go to war over East Germany's right to close its own boarders. He quickly sent General Lucius Clay and Vice President Lyndon Johnson as his personal ambassadors to Berlin to demonstrate the strength of Washington's commitment. Finally, Kennedy sent a force of 1,500 troops across East Germany into West Berlin. While largely symbolic, these actions demonstrated to the Soviets that the United States was committed to supporting West Berlin. With this demonstration of American solidarity with West Berlin, Khrushchev ended his threats of a separate East German treaty.
The construction of the wall provided the Cold War with a tangible incarnation of the Iron Curtain and marked the beginning of a de facto agreement between the superpowers. Both the United States and the Soviet Union allowed the city to remain divided and limited their action to protecting their sphere of Berlin. The resolution of the Berlin crises represented the end of an important point of conflict in the Cold War.
The Geneva conference, with the United States, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom participating, adjourns without reaching an agreement on a nuclear test ban.
Kennedy halts virtually all trade with Cuba.
On February 20, 1962, Astronaut John Glenn aboard the Mercury craft Friendship 7 became the first American to orbit the earth. In a five-hour flight, Glenn orbited the Earth three times and landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean. Both President John Kennedy and the American people celebrated Glenn's space flight. The United States had equaled the Soviet Union in scientific accomplishment.
Ever since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States trailed the USSR in the space race. Since space technology demonstrated potential weapons, this competition became an important aspect of the Cold War. In April 1961, the Soviets launched the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. Soon the American followed suit sending Alan Shepard into space in 1961 and Virgil Grissom in 1962. Both Shepard's and Grissom's flights, however, were suborbital, failing to match the Soviet accomplishment.
In light of the Soviet successes, President Kennedy endorsed an aggressive space program. While realizing the importance of space exploration to the military, Kennedy remained firmly committed to a civilian controlled program of manned space flights. Eisenhower had reluctantly approved Project Mercury and its goal of sending Americans into space. With the encouragement of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy increased spending on the space program hoping to surpass the Soviets. In an address to Congress on May 25, 1961, the President challenged the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon.” Despite lagging behind the Soviets, Kennedy envisioned an American victory in the space race.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation in transportation facilities is unconstitutional.
Kennedy announces the reduction of U.S. import duties as part of an agreement to promote international trade.
Tom Hayden presents the “Port Huron Statement” to the annual convention of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Port Huron, Michigan.
On September 30, 1962, an African American college student, James Meredith, arrived at the University of Mississippi, escorted by federal marshals, to attend class. They were met by an angry crowd of students and other local whites who opposed Meredith's efforts to integrate “Old Miss.” The deadly riot that broke out forced President John F. Kennedy to intervene, and the episode helped change the President’s approach to civil rights.
Meredith applied for admissions to the all-white University of Mississippi in early 1962. After being rejected due to his race, Meredith sued the University in federal court. On September 13, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Meredith’s rejection from the University and ordered that he be immediately enrolled. Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi announced his opposition to the ruling and pledged that “Old Miss” would not be integrated. Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., the President and Attorney General Robert Kennedy discussed how they could enforce the decision of the court with as little conflict as possible.
Robert Kennedy remained in contact with Governor Ross throughout the crisis over Meredith’s admission. The Kennedy administration followed a federalist doctrine that local police forces should maintain law and order in these situations. They also believed that behind-the-scenes negotiations with Barnett could lead to a political compromise that would satisfy all parties involved. Reaching an agreement between Kennedy and Barnett proved difficult, however. The President wanted to avoid the imposition of military power that would remind southerners of Reconstruction, and the governor would only back down if he could blame the desegregation of Old Miss on the federal government. Despite these obstacles, the Kennedys believed Barnett had committed his state to maintaining order on the campus of Old Miss.
On Sunday, September 30, when Meredith arrived along with a small contingent of federal marshals, an angry crowd of students and other local whites met them. Soon, shots were fired, killing two men. Fearing more violence, the President refused to allow the marshals to fire their weapons. Finally, at 10 p.m. the administration ordered Army units stationed in Memphis, Tennessee, to the campus. Due to a series of errors, the Army did not arrive until 2:15 am the next day. Twenty-three-thousand soldiers then restored order to the Old Miss campus and the town of Oxford. Later that morning, James Meredith escorted by a military guard attended his first class at the University of Mississippi.
By the time Meredith became the first African American to graduate from Old Miss in 1963, he had become an important symbol of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and throughout the South. For the Kennedy administration, the incident provided several important lessons. First, it brought into question their respect for federalist doctrine. Their trust in local law enforcement had led to a deadly race riot. Second, they questioned the ability to solve these difficult issues through negotiations with politicians. Barnett demonstrated the ability of southern Democratic politicians to make certain commitments to the President, while taking a different stand with the people of his state. Without making any specific changes in policy, the desegregation of Old Miss led Kennedy to question his administration’s approach to civil rights.
Kennedy is informed of the existence of Soviet missile installations in Cuba.
On October 22, 1962, President John Kennedy announced in a nationally televised address that the United States had discovered the Soviet Union was building “offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba. The President warned that the purpose of the Soviet missiles in Cuba could be “none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere” and that he would protect the United States from such a threat no matter what the cost. He explained the U.S. Navy would impose a “quarantine” or naval blockade around Cuba with the support of the Organization of American States.
The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 14, 1962, when a U-2 surveillance mission flying over Cuba photographed the construction of launch sites for medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles. These missiles, once operational, could deliver nuclear warheads to much of the United States. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy informed the President of the discovery the morning of October 16. Kennedy quickly called a meeting of his top military and diplomatic advisers as well as his most trusted confidants like Theodore Sorensen and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. This group became known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council or ExComm.
Members of ExComm agreed that the Soviets must remove the missiles from Cuba, however, they disagreed about the best approach to ensure the missiles' removal. After much discussion, the President chose to use a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent further shipments of Soviet weapons from entering Cuba, but because international law considered a “blockade” an act of war, the Kennedy administration chose to use the term “quarantine” instead. Over the next few days, the world waited in anxious anticipation as Soviet ships approached the American blockade. On the morning of Wednesday, October 24, conflict appeared imminent as twenty-five Soviet ships neared the quarantine. At 10 a.m., however, the six vessels nearest the boundary all turned back.
Despite the initial success of the quarantine, the crises continued without resolution. Finally, on October 26, lines of communication opened with the Soviets, but the White House received confusing messages. Meanwhile, the downing an American U-2 surveillance plane over Cuba exacerbated the crisis, placing Kennedy under increasing pressure from his military advisors to order an air strike on Cuba. The President realized he must act quickly to find a diplomatic solution.
Responding to the communication from Moscow, the White House drafted a letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev explaining that once the Soviets removed the missiles from Cuba, the United States would end its quarantine and would promise not to invade Cuba. In a secret conversation with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Robert Kennedy pledged that, in an addition to the terms in the letter, the United States would also remove American ballistic nuclear missiles from Turkey. On October 28, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved when the Soviets accepted the U.S. compromise. On November 20, Kennedy ended the naval blockade of Cuba after the Soviet Union had dismantled and removed the weapons from Cuba. In one of the most dramatic crises of the Cold War, Kennedy and Khrushchev avoided violent conflict.
To read and listen to the full text of President Kennedy's Address on the Buildup of Arms in Cuba, click here.
After thirteen days, the Cuban Missile Crisis is resolved. The United States will pledge not to invade Cub (and secretly agrees to remove missiles from Turkey), in exchange for the removal of the Soviet weapons.
Kennedy lifts the naval blockade of Cuba.
The Supreme Court rules in Gideon v. Wainwright that states must supply counsel in criminal cases for individuals who cannot afford it.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) begins a movement in (with notable participant Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) to highlight the efforts being made by black Americans in Birmingham, Alabama, to integrate public spaces in the city. Importantly, activists worked to expose the violent nature of Birmingham's law enforcement, led by the notorious Eugene "Bull" Connor, who met activists' nonviolent, peaceful protest with high-pressure firehoses and police dogs. Because these events which lasted over a month were widely publicized in film and print media, the activists were successful in revealing the unlawful actions of Birmingham's civic authorities, leading to changes in the city's discrimination laws.
On June 10, 1963, President John Kennedy gave a commencement address at American University. In it, he addressed relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and a nuclear test ban treaty.
In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, both Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev hoped their countries could move closer to peace. The idea of a nuclear test ban treaty originated in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, but the two sides never could agree on the details of a pact. At the end of 1962, Khrushchev wrote Kennedy of his desire to create such an agreement. Meanwhile, Kennedy's statements began to take a softer stance toward his Soviet adversaries.
The need for a nuclear test ban treaty was a critical component of Kennedy's speech at American University. This speech, however, called for more than simply a ban on atomic testing. Kennedy called for a real peace; “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” He expressed sympathy for the Soviets and their losses in World War II. Both nations shared, the President explained, a common interest in preserving the planet for future generations. Agreeing to a nuclear test ban would only be the first step toward the long-range goal of complete disarmament. After surviving one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War, Kennedy envisioned an end to arms race.
Kennedy's speech led to some immediate results. Soon, a new teletype hot line was installed providing direct communication between the Kremlin and the White House. This system would end the miscommunication that proved so dangerous in the missile crises. The President also sent a delegation to Moscow to negotiate the long-awaited nuclear test ban treaty. While the resulting agreement met the demands of neither side, the “Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water” was a significant step in decreasing tensions between the superpowers. After coming on the verge of violent conflict in the missile crises, Kennedy and Khrushchev attempted to foster a new period of détente.
To read and listen to Kennedy's address at American University, click here.
Medgar W. Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi and one of the Civil Rights Movement's most significant activists, is shot in the back outside his home in Jackson. Found by his wife, Myrlie, Evers was rushed to the hospital where he was initially denied entry because of his race. Once he was finally admitted, becoming the first black person admitted to an all white hospital in Mississippi, he died within the hour leaving behind his wife and three children. After three decades and as many trials, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of Evers' murder on February 5, 1994, largely thanks to Myrlie's persistence in pursuing her husband's killer.
Speaking in West Berlin, Kennedy demonstrates his solidarity with the city, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Click here to watch his speech.
On August 28, 1963, about 250,000 people traveled to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate their support for civil rights legislation before Congress. The leaders of the major civil rights organizations led a nonviolent march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. Before a large crowd and a national television audience, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. With a large turnout and peaceful demonstration, the civil rights leaders increased the pressure on Congress and President John Kennedy to pass meaningful civil rights legislation.
Before the summer of 1963, the Kennedy administration had disappointed many of those involved in the civil rights struggle. The President had often attempted to avoid conflict with Southern Democrats on issues regarding race. On June 11, 1963, after Governor George Wallace tried to block desegregation at the University of Alabama, Kennedy made his most aggressive statement on civil rights in an impromptu address to the nation, arguing on moral grounds for equal rights for all Americans. With a firm commitment to legislation for civil rights, President Kennedy met with African American leaders to gain their support. Despite Kennedy's opposition, many of the leaders at this meeting proposed a march on Washington to pressure Congress to pass a strong civil rights act.
The march created a moment of unity among the fractured civil rights organizations. They emphasized the peaceful and orderly nature of the march; there would be no civil disobedience. The focus of the day would be a rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial with singers and speakers, including John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Martin Luther King, Jr., was scheduled to speak last. He began speaking from the written text he had completed the night before, but soon drifted off onto a theme he had spoken of several times. “I have a dream,” he declared, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King continued to give his most famous address presenting a vision of racial equality and harmony for the nation.
After the march, the organizers met with President Kennedy. King, Wilkins, and others pressed the President for a more aggressive civil rights bill and discussed strategies to garner political support. Despite the success of the march, the civil rights bill moved slowly through Congress. However, the actions of King and other activists had an important effect on President Kennedy as his administration lobbied in support of the civil rights bill. After Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson continued to work for civil rights legislation. On July 2, 1964, he signed the Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation in public facilities.
To read and listen to the full text of President Kennedy's June 11, 1963 speech, click here.
Four African-American girls are killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when at least 15 sticks of dynamite planted by four members of the KKK blow a 7 foot hole in the basement of the church. More than twenty others were injured; the blast also destroyed the basement lounge, several nearby parked cars, windows two blocks away and all but one of the church's stained glass windows. The FBI closed their investigation without convicting any of the four suspects.
Kennedy signs a limited nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.
South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem is assassinated in U.S.-supported coup.
On November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy was shot and killed while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
The President and First Lady had gone to Texas in an attempt to bolster Democratic support for his presidency in the South. While the President and First Lady were riding in a motorcade with Texas governor John Connally and his wife, the open limousine turned into Dealey Plaza and gunshots rang out. Kennedy, shot in the neck and the head, was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital. A short time later, President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead. With a blood-stained Jacquelyn Kennedy at his side, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States.
The search for Kennedy's assassin began immediately. The police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald in a nearby movie theater. Witnesses had identified shots coming from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where Oswald worked. Oswald, however, was never tried for the crime. Two days later, Jack Ruby, a Dallas businessman and nightclub owner, shot Oswald dead in the basement of the Dallas police station as he was being transfered to a jail. This strange turn of events quickly cast doubt about who had perpetrated the assassination. President Johnson appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to head a commission to investigate the incident. In less than a year, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald, working alone, was guilty of the act. Many Americans remain unsatisfied with this simple explanation for such a horrific event.
Kennedy's death proved to be a political asset for the legislatively astute Johnson. “Let us continue,” Johnson told Congress and the American people echoing Kennedy's inaugural address. Framing his programs as a way of fulfilling Kennedy's legacy, Johnson passed the most significant civil rights legislation in American history. Still, for a whole generation of Americans, Kennedy's death would symbolize an end of a time of innocence and the beginning of a turbulent period in American history.
Jack Ruby shoots and kills Lee Harvey Oswald.
Kennedy is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.