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On the Road to His Grave

JFKBy a razor-thin margin in the November 1960 election, John F. Kennedy was elected as the 35th president of the United States. Most Americans admired his winning personality, his charisma, and his assiduous energy. He won the hearts of the nation with his charm and youth. Tragically, an assassin’s bullet cut short Kennedy’s term as president. On November 22, 1963, the youthful was shot to death while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
John was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Mass., and was the second of nine. As an infantile he lived in a comfortable house in that suburb of Boston. As the family grew and the father’s fortune increased, the Kennedys moved to larger, more impressive homes, first in Brookline, then in suburbs of New York City. John had a happy childhood, full of family games and sports. He attended private elementary schools, none of them parochial. He later spent a year at Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn., where he was taught by Roman Catholic laymen, and four years at Choate School in Wallingford, Conn.

Kennedy strongly favored rearmament for the United States, and in the spring of 1941 he volunteered for the Army, but was rejected because of his weak back. During the summer he took strengthening exercises, and in September he was accepted by the Navy. In March 1943, as a lieutenant he took command of a PT boat in the Solomon Islands. While his boat was cruising west of New Georgia on the night of August 2, it was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy was thrown across the deck onto his back, but he rallied the survivors and managed to get them to an island. He himself towed a wounded man three miles through the seas. For several days he risked his life repeatedly, swimming into dangerous waters hoping to find a rescue ship. He finally encountered two friendly islanders and sent them for aid with a message that he carved on a coconut. He received the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, but his earlier back injury had been aggravated, and he contracted malaria. After an operation on his back, he was discharged early in 1945.

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Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier on Sept. 12, 1953. The couple had two children who survived infancy Caroline Bouvier, born on Nov. 27, 1957, and John, Jr., born on Nov. 25, 1960. A third child, Patrick Bouvier, died two days after his birth on Aug. 7, 1963.

Beginning in 1956, Kennedy aimed toward the high office of presidency. In the Democratic Convention of that year he almost wrested the vice-presidential nomination from Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. After the election he began speaking frequently through out the country, and many writers began to speculate whether a Roman Catholic could be elected president. In 1958, Kennedy was reelected to the Senate by a margin of more than 874,000 votes. This firmly established him as a leading contender for the presidential nomination. In January 1960 he formally announced his candidacy. Backed again by a formidable personal organization, he defeated Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, Jr., of Minnesota and other rivals in several hard-fought primaries. In accepting the nomination, Kennedy declared that “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier,” thus
giving a name to his program. When he appeared in a unique series of television debates
with Vice President Nixon, his mature appearance undercut Republican arguments that he
was too young and inexperienced for such high office. Although public opinion polls
predicted his victory, he was elected president by a margin of only 119,450 votes out of
the nearly 69,000,000 that were cast. His electoral vote was 303 to 219 for Nixon.

Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to become president of the United States
and, at the age of 43, the youngest man ever elected to that office, though Theodore
Roosevelt was some months younger when he took office after the death of William
McKinley in 1901. Kennedy’s Catholicism may have helped him in the Eastern industrial
states, and he won most of the Democratic South despite it, but the religious question
apparently hurt him in the Middle West and West.

Kennedy was inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, 1961. He devoted his entire
inaugural address to international affairs, calling on his fellow citizens “to bear the
burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, against the common enemies
of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” His address was widely acclaimed as a
classic political expression.

In November 1963, President Kennedy journeyed to Texas for a speechmaking
tour. In Dallas on November 22, he and his wife were cheered enthusiastically as their
open car passed through the streets. Suddenly, at 12:30 in the afternoon, an assassin fired
several shots, striking the president twice, in the base of the neck and the head, and
seriously wounding John Connally, the governor of Texas, who was riding with the
Kennedys. The president was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he was
pronounced dead about a half hour later. Within two hours, Vice President Johnson took
the oath as president.

On November 24, amid national and worldwide mourning, the president’s body
lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The next day, leaders of 92 nations
attended the state funeral, and a million persons lined the route as a horse-drawn caisson
bore the body to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for a requiem Mass. While millions of
Americans watched the ceremonies on television, the president was buried on a slope in
Arlington National Cemetery. There an eternal flame, lighted by his widow, marks the

On the day of the assassination, the police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-
year-old ex-Marine, for the president’s murder. Oswald, who had lived for a time in the
Soviet Union, killed Dallas Policeman J. D. Tippit while resisting arrest. Two days later,
in the basement of the Dallas police station, Oswald himself was fatally shot by Jack
Ruby, a nightclub owner. On November 29, President Johnson appointed a seven-
member commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to conduct a thorough
investigation of the assassination and report to the nation. The commission’s report, made
public on Sept. 27, 1964, held that Oswald fired the shots that killed the president.
Further, to allay suspicions that the murder was a conspiratorial plot, it stated that the
committee “found no evidence” that either Oswald or Ruby “was part of any conspiracy,
domestic or foreign, to assassinate President Kennedy.” In 1979, however, a House
assassinations committee concluded that Oswald probably was part of a conspiracy that
also may have included members of organized crime. And yet, in 1998, a Congressional
records review board discounted that finding and confirmed that Oswald acted alone.

Works Cited
Bernstein, Irving. Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s. Pittsburg: Oxford, 1998.

Brogan, Hugh. Kennedy. New York: Longman, 1996.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 1963. Denver: Brassey’s,

Reeves, Thomas. Question of Character: Image and Reality in the Life of John F.
Kennedy. Philadelphia: Macmillan, 1991.

Strober, Deborah H., and Gerald S. Strober, The Kennedy Presidency: An Oral History of
the Era. Boston: Belknap Press, 2003


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