John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or "Jack" as his family called him, was a young boy when he first visited Washington, DC. Did he have any idea that thirty-one years later he would stand on the steps of this very building to take the oath of office? What happened in his life that brought him to that moment? How did he become the 35th president of the United States?
Jack sent this postcard of the Capitol to his mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, on his first trip to Washington, DC. If he was born on May 29, 1917, how old was he when the card was sent? (Hint: check the postmark to help you find the answer. Answer Key here.)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, a few miles outside of Boston, Massachusetts. His father, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, was a successful businessman. All eight of his great-grandparents were immigrants. They left Ireland during the potato famine and traveled by ship to Boston, hoping for a better life. When they came to the United States, it was hard for them to find jobs. They discovered that people from Ireland were not always treated fairly or with respect. But Jack’s grandparents were determined and talented. They worked hard and his grandfathers became well-known politicians in Boston. By the time Jack was born, his parents expected him to be successful, too.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was named in honor of his grandfather, John Francis Fitzgerald. Known as “Honey Fitz”, his grandfather was mayor of Boston and also served as a US Representative for Massachusetts. Jack followed in his grandfather’s footsteps when he was elected US Representative to Congress from the same district as his grandfather in 1946.
Left to right: Mary Fitzgerald (wife of “Honey Fitz”), “Honey Fitz”, Eunice, Jack, Kathleen, Rosemary, Joe Jr. [KFC235N]
Growing up, Jack was often sick. He even had scarlet fever, a dangerous disease which could have ended his life. Reading helped him pass the hours he spent in bed, trying to recover from his many illnesses. He became an excellent reader as he learned about history through books. He also discovered many things about people and places around the world.
John F. Kennedy’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was very organized. She kept note cards for each of her nine children in a small wooden box. Here is the card for Jack. When is his birthday? Where was he born? What illnesses did he have as a young boy?
Jack had many brothers and sisters to keep him company. He had one older brother (Joe), five younger sisters (Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, and Jean), and two younger brothers (Robert and Edward). The family loved to play sports and spent many summers at the beach swimming, sailing and playing football. Their father taught them to compete and to play hard to win. Joe was older and stronger and usually won, but Jack played clever tricks to get the better of Joe. One time, Joe carefully scraped the chocolate icing off his cake, saving the best part to eat last. In a flash, Jack grabbed the plate and wolfed down the frosting in front of his brother. Joe was furious and smacked him. Jack hit him back and then both boys were sent off to bed.
This photograph was taken on September 4, 1931 at the Kennedy’s house in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. How old was Jack? There are only eight children pictured since Edward (or Ted) was not born until 1932. [PC 8]
From kindergarten to the beginning of third grade, Jack went to the Devotion School, the public school near his house. He then attended private schools: first Dexter, then Riverdale, and for eighth grade, the Canterbury School. Jack then went to the Choate School, as did his brother Joe. Jack was very smart and well informed. He read the newspaper every day as a high school student. But he wasn’t always the best student. At Choate, Jack and his friends did not always follow the school rules. They liked to have fun. They would sneak out for milkshakes and play their radios very loudly.
Jack let his parents know about his low grade in Latin before they saw this report card. Do you think he could have earned a higher grade?
Explore the folder in our digital archives that includes this document along with other report cards and letters from John F. Kennedy's early years here .
After high school, Jack went to Princeton University first, then to Harvard College. He studied government and history and earned a B average by his senior year. While Jack was in college, his father became ambassador to England. Jack spent part of his college years with his family in England. He traveled to many places in Europe and Asia, and saw for himself how people lived in other countries. It was a tense time because World War II, a war between many different countries all over the world, was about to begin. Jack wrote a book about the start of the war called Why England Slept.
While he was studying in England, Jack became very interested in why England was not ready to fight in World War II. He wrote an important research paper, called a thesis, on the information he gathered in England. His father encouraged him to edit his paper and try to publish it as a book.
World War II began in 1939 and the United States entered the war in 1941. Jack and his brother Joe joined the Navy. Joe flew airplanes and Jack served on a patrol torpedo boat. In August 1943, Jack’s boat—the PT-109—was hit by a Japanese ship. Jack hurt his back in the crash but still helped other men swim to a nearby island. They were stranded there for seven days. Luckily, two men from the islands, Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, found them. Jack carved a message onto the husk of a coconut and gave it to the islanders. They took it in their canoe to a nearby Navy base. The crew was rescued and Jack was given a special medal for his leadership and a purple heart for his injuries.
This painting hung in the White House when John F. Kennedy was president. It shows the Amagiri, a Japanese destroyer, ramming into the PT-109, the boat JFK commanded during World War II. Gerard Richardson, an official artist for the U.S. Navy, painted it in 1961. How many years after the crash was the painting made? Why might it have been painted then?
World War II changed Jack in many ways. He never forgot his war experience and the bravery of his crew. His brother Joe also died during the war. Jack wanted to make a difference. He decided to be a politician. In 1946 he won his first election. He became a Democratic congressman for Massachusetts and served for six years. Then he was elected to the United States Senate.
John F. Kennedy had severe back trouble as a teenager and as an adult. He sometimes used crutches to help him walk and stand. His mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who often gave speeches on his behalf, is pictured here cheering him on during this campaign speech for the U.S. Senate. [PC2225]
As a congressman and senator, John F. Kennedy worked to pass laws that would help people in the United States. At this time, he was also focused on his family. In 1953, he married Jacqueline Bouvier. Their daughter Caroline was born in 1957 and their son John Jr. was born in 1960.
John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and their two children, John Jr. and Caroline, had fun family time on Cape Cod at the Kennedy house in Hyannis Port. During what time of year was the photograph taken? How do you know? [ST-C22-1-62]
In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran for president of the United States. He traveled around the country, meeting people, and giving speeches about what he would do as president. The Democratic Party chose him as their candidate for president. The election was very close. Just over 100,000 more people voted for him than his opponent, Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon. At 43 years old, he became the youngest man elected president of the United States.
Kennedy asked Lyndon B. Johnson, a powerful US senator from Texas, to be his running mate. Some historians believe that by having Johnson run for vice president, Kennedy gained more votes from southern states.
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States. In his first speech – his Inaugural Address – President Kennedy asked Americans to help their country. He said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Thousands of people wrote letters to the President, congratulating him on his speech and asking what they could do for the country.
From the steps of the Capitol, John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address to twenty thousand people and through television to millions more around the world. Can you find Jacqueline Kennedy in the photograph? Can you find Vice President Johnson? Dwight D. Eisenhower, the departing president, is sitting to the right of Jacqueline Kennedy. He was 70 at the time. John F. Kennedy was 43. [SC CC18209]
Many of the letters to the new President were from people who wanted to join the Peace Corps, a program started by President Kennedy. Peace Corps volunteers leave the United States for two years to live and work with people in a different country. They work as teachers, farmers, nurses, doctors, and builders. The Peace Corps has helped many people and still exists today.
Willie Douglas (far right) left the United States for two years and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Pakistan. What work did he do there? What might he have learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Pakistan? [PX65-2:55]
Creating the Peace Corps was only one of President Kennedy’s important accomplishments. Every day he made important decisions, and met with powerful people. In 1963, he welcomed 82 leaders of other countries to the White House!
President Kennedy had certain things he did almost every day. He ate a big breakfast, read at least four newspapers, and swam in the White House pool. Swimming helped his back feel better and kept him in good shape. Caroline and John Jr. sometimes joined him in the pool! Even though he was very busy, it was very important to him to spend time with his family.
President Kennedy would clap his hands three times to let Caroline and John Jr. know that he had time to visit with them in the Oval Office. What might have happened if he didn’t have a signal? Click below to view the full-sized image to examine the special objects and furniture JFK chose to have in his office. [ST-441-10-62]
While Kennedy was president, the United States was in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Both countries were making and testing nuclear bombs and missiles. Each country feared the other would be more powerful. It was a scary time because one nuclear bomb could destroy an entire city. People were most worried in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba, near the United States. President Kennedy convinced the Soviet Union to remove the missiles. He began to work with the Soviet Union so that both countries would agree to stop testing nuclear weapons.
This map, which was top secret at the time, was shown to President Kennedy after Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba. Can you find Cuba? Historians have pointed out that the target range shown here is much larger than the actual reach of the type of missiles sighted in Cuba. On this map, how much of the United States could be hit by the missiles?
President Kennedy wanted the United States to lead the world in exploring outer space. He challenged the US to be the first country to send a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. The government put time, effort, and money into building better rockets, training astronauts, and sending them closer and closer to the moon. The United States reached President Kennedy’s goal on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the moon while fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited nearby.
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. His successful mission encouraged the US to reach President Kennedy’s goal of landing an astronaut on the moon. Traveling 160 miles above the earth’s surface, Glenn sped around the planet at 17,500 mph in his space capsule, the Friendship 7. Courtesy of NASA [GPN-2002-000075]
President Kennedy was a leader who believed in fairness. He thought it was wrong that in some cities and towns, black people were not allowed to attend the same schools as white people. They had to sit in a different part of the movie theater and use separate restrooms. Many people, black and white, young and old, worked together to try to end this unfair separation, called segregation. President Kennedy wanted to end segregation, too. In June 1963, he asked Congress to make a new law for civil rights. He gave a speech on television and said that the United States stood for equality. He believed everyone deserved to be treated fairly and with respect.
After Martin Luther King Jr. told the world, “I have a dream” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he and other civil rights leaders went to the White House. They met with President Kennedy to discuss the newly-proposed law for equal rights. [ST-C277-1-63]
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy traveled to Dallas, Texas. He was beginning his campaign for the 1964 presidential election. As he was riding through the city, shots were fired at him. Seriously wounded by the shooting, he was rushed to the hospital, but he did not survive. Soon after, people around the world gathered together for comfort as they listened to radio and television reports announcing the sad news. Vice President Johnson was in Dallas, too. He took the oath of office and became the new president. He flew back to Washington, DC that day to keep everyone calm and safe.
To honor President Kennedy, there is an eternal flame at his grave in Arlington National Cemetery. [PX 74-19-no#]
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. His efforts to promote equal rights gave people hope and helped end segregation. He got people excited about exploring space and encouraged them to meet difficult challenges. He helped keep the United States safe and led the country to work towards peace with other nations. President Kennedy believed that if we all join together, we can make the world a better place.
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