An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States

Dec 4, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Today we will look at John Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts. Kennedy had a distinguished family lineage; his maternal grandfather had been the mayor of Boston, and his father was one of the wealthiest men in America. Kennedy went to school in Brookline through the 4th grade, at which time his family moved to New York City. He attended the Riverside Country School in Riverside, New York from 5th grade through 7th grade. He went to a private school in Connecticut for 8th grade, but after having to undergo an appendectomy at the end of that year he withdrew from that school.

For his high school years he attended the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. Kennedy started college at Princeton, but illness forced him to leave school after six weeks. After Kennedy recuperated, he entered Harvard in the fall of 1936. He wrote his senior thesis on the policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler followed by Great Britain up to the beginning of the Second World War, and this was given high marks by Kennedy’s thesis supervisors. Kennedy’s father used his influence to have the thesis published as a book; titled Why England Slept, it sold over 80,000 copies.

After graduating cum laude in international affairs in 1940, Kennedy audited classes at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, but as it became increasingly apparent that the United States would be drawn into World War II he decided to joined the military. He was rejected by the US Army, but was accepted by the Navy. He was serving in Washington DC at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and immediately sought a transfer to a combat assignment. The Navy had developed a craft known as Motor Torpedo Boats immediately prior to the war, and Kennedy volunteered to join that force. He was assigned to duty in the South Pacific, and received command of the PT-109.

In August of 1943, while on night patrol his boat was cut in half by a Japanese warship. Kennedy organized the surviving crew members, and had them swim to a nearby island. Kennedy placed a life preserver strap worn by a badly wounded crewman between his teeth and towed him as his swam to the island. He then swam out that night into the waters where his ship had sunk, hoping to catch the attention of passing American vessels. In this effort he was unsuccessful, but eventually he and his men were rescued.

For his heroism, Kennedy received the Navy and Marine Corps medal, and an account of his heroic actions soon after appeared in The New Yorker. Kennedy, who had suffered from a back ailment for years, reinjured his back during the ramming of his craft, and as a result he was given a medical discharge in 1945. After the war, Kennedy worked as a journalist for the Hearst newspaper chain, but in 1946 quit that profession to run for a seat in the US House of Representatives from his original home area in Massachusetts. Kennedy won the Democratic primary, and then captured the general election in November. While his father’s money undoubtedly helped, Kennedy deserves much of the credit for these victories, as he proved to be an effective campaigner. Kennedy won reelection in 1948 and 1950, and then in 1952 ran for a seat in the US Senate. He ran against the incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge, and in a year that saw Massachusetts give a majority of its presidential votes to the Republican candidate Eisenhower, Kennedy won the senatorial race by a comfortable margin. In 1956 a debilitating illness felled Kennedy. Indeed, his condition was so serious that he was administered the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. Kennedy survived, but required extensive rest. While recuperating, Kennedy wrote a book titled Profiles in Courage.

A look at members of Congress who throughout our nation’s history had taken a stand on principle, the book received the Pulitzer Prize for History. Kennedy successfully sought reelection to the Senate in 1958, and then in 1960 announced that he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. His candidacy seemed problematic because of his Catholicism (no Catholic had ever been elected president, and there had been only one Catholic candidate from a major party), but Kennedy answered these doubts by proclaiming that he would observe a strict separation of church and state. Kennedy won the primaries that took place that year, but since many states did not hold primaries his nomination was still in doubt when the Democrats held their national convention. His momentum proved irresistible, however, and Kennedy received the nomination on the first ballot. In his acceptance speech he promised the nation a “New Frontier.”

His opponent was Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s vice-president, and many observers thought that Nixon would win. To overtake Nixon, the Kennedy camp challenged Nixon to a series of debates. Nixon agreed, and the televised first debate clearly showed Kennedy in a much more favorable light than his opponent. As the election drew near, Kennedy made an offer of help to the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who had been imprisoned on a spurious charge in Georgia), and this helped swing many African-Americans over to Kennedy. These events seem to have been the decisive factors in allowing Kennedy to earn a victory by a narrow margin. He was inaugurated in January of 1961

2. What was he MOST known for?

John F. Kennedy will always be best known for his role in what is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October of 1962, reconnaissance photographs revealed that a missile base was being built on the island of Cuba, and Kennedy was informed of this by the Central Intelligence Agency. Kennedy called together a small group of top ranking officials, known as the Executive Committee, to help him come up with an appropriate response to this development. A number of individuals from this group wanted Kennedy to authorize a preemptive military strike to take out the missile sites, while a few others felt that Kennedy should take no retaliatory action whatsoever.


Kennedy weighed his options carefully, and eventually decided on a two-pronged strategy. Publicly he announced a quarantine of the island of Cuba, a policy that prevented any ship carrying cargo that could be used to make the missile sites operational from reaching Cuba. Privately, the Kennedy Administration would inform the Soviets that if they took their missiles out of Cuba, the US would remove American missiles from bases in Turkey and Greece. The Soviets accepted this deal, and the world was saved from a thermo-nuclear war. Kennedy’s prudent and skillful leadership during this crisis remains one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of all time.

3. What would you say were his strengths?

Much like Teddy Roosevelt, Kennedy could read quickly and retain a great deal of what he read. He had a charismatic personality, and became over time a very effective public speaker. Finally, his wife Jacqueline was a great political asset. Indeed, it often seemed that as many, if not more, people came out to see her at a public event as her husband.

4. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

We know today that Kennedy was an inveterate womanizer. One of the women that he had an extramarital affair with had been the mistress of a crime boss, and this relationship could have been disastrous for Kennedy if he had been blackmailed about it. Fortunately for Kennedy, his dalliances with women were covered up during his presidency, and never affected his administration.

5. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

As noted previously, Kennedy had one of the most profound influences on history of any American president. His adroit handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis saved the world from possible annihilation, and in the aftermath he took steps to try make the world a safer place. First, he helped to establish a more effective communication link between the White House and the Kremlin. Second, he helped oversee the creation of a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that is still in effect to this day. Kennedy deserves much credit for insuring that the Cold War never escalated into an armed conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

6. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Kennedy’s term as president lasted only about a thousand days, and as such he did not have as much time as president to get all of his goals accomplished. But during his time in office Kennedy still managed to get a great deal done, both in foreign and domestic terms. As such, historians regard him as being the 11th-best president of all time.

7. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Kennedy had received a significant share of the African-American vote in 1960, but once in office he was initially reluctant to push for greater civil rights for them. But gradually he came to see that action on the part of the federal government was necessary to secure fundamental rights for African-Americans. Accordingly, he used powers at his disposal to help integrate the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama, and after the March on Washington (led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) he made a speech advocating the passage of a civil rights act. Kennedy would not live to see this enacted, but he set the nation on a course that would see significant progress made in the area of civil rights.

8. Could you provide a summary statement about our thirty-fifth President?

A popular musical of the late 1950s was “Camelot,” and the title song talked about how once an enlightened leader had helped his kingdom become a just and progressive realm. To many, the Kennedy presidency seemed to be a modern-day iteration of an idyllic time, and the names of Kennedy and Camelot have forever since been intertwined.

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