[Abridged] Presidential Histories

35.) John F. Kennedy 1961-1963

November 20, 2023 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
35.) John F. Kennedy 1961-1963
Show Notes Transcript

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy,  January 20, 1961


John F. Kennedy presided over three of the most turbulent years of the Cold War. From the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis and a coup in Vietnam, the stakes have rarely been higher. But how did he overcome youth and bigotry against his Catholic faith to reach the White House? Well, it helps when your daddy has money and you have charisma to spare.

1. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 – Robert Dallek
2. Richard Nixon: The Life – John Farrell
3. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream – Doris Kearns Goodwin
4. The Years of Lyndon Johnson and the Passage of Power – Robert Caro
5. Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency – Mark K Updegrove
6. Eisenhower in War and Peace – Jean Edward Smith

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Learning about John F Kennedy is kind of like looking at the most popular kid in school - the one who was most handsome or beautiful, whose parents were loaded, whose life seemed perfect - and realizing that, just beneath that veneer, their life is kind of a nightmare.

Sure, Kennedy will always have the money, the looks, the charm, but he also suffered so many debilitating illnesses that his treatment could accurately be describes as torture and once or twice he was read his last rites because everyone thought he was going to die. His beautiful marriage was an unhappy one because he couldn’t control himself around women, and his ambitious administration was largely a failure - he couldn’t get anything passed.

And yet… still. When we think of John F Kennedy, we think of Camelot. We think of that perfect picture. We don’t see past it.

Today, we will look past it, at the thrilling highs and tragic lows of John F. Kennedy, the last assassinated president.


Joseph P Kennedy was born on September 6, 1888, in Boston, Massachusetts, and I know what you’re thinking. 

Joseph P Kennedy? Who the heck is that?

Well, Joe is JFK’s dad. And as we will see, John Kennedy would never have become president without his father’s support, and incessant pushing. So we’re going to spend a minute with Joe because he’s a key part of this story.

Joe Kennedy was the Boston-based descendant of Irish immigrants, and you get the sense that, to borrow a line, he was always out to prove he was more than anyone bargained for. 

Now, Joe wasn’t the first off the boat in his family. By the time he was coming of age, the Kennedy’s had accrued some advantages. His grandfather had been an immigrant, but his father had become a ward-level political boss in East Boston. He had connections. And Joe - Joe had smarts. Together, that was enough to get Joe admitted to Harvard, and then Joe really kicked it up a notch when he married Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of a Boston mayor who was so smooth, everyone called him “Honey Fitz.” With the money, education, and connections available to him, Joe Kennedy began plotting a path to the top. The first step was to borrow $45,000 - well more than $1 million dollars today - to purchase a struggling bank, making Joe the youngest bank president in the United States at 25 years old, and it took off from there.

Joe leveraged his position and connections to bring more affluent investors into his bank and earn appointments to influential boards. He learned how to play the stock market, where he made his first millions while the market was on its way up during the 1920’s, and then he made millions more short selling the market just before the crash that started the great depression. He diversified, buying real estate, becoming one of the first major players in the film industry, and making a killing on liquor sales when prohibition ended. By the 1930’s, Joe Kennedy had the ear of President Roosevelt and was one of the richest men in America, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The Kennedy’s were so wealthy that when their kids walked into stores, they learned they could just pick up and take anything they wanted back home with them - daddy would pay later. It was enough wealth to buy an ambassadorship to England. But what he really wanted was the presidency. And that he would buy for his son.

On May 29, 1917, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, also known as Jack, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. He was the second of 9 children and, importantly, the second son.

This meant there were no great expectations for Jack. Everyone knew his older brother, Joe Jr, was the child of destiny. Junior was athletic, sociable, confident. And he had Joe Sr. behind him.

Jack, by comparison, was a shadow. Where junior was sociable, Jack was awkward. Where junior was confident, Jack was shy. And where Junior was athletic, Jack was sickly. Oh boy, was Jack sickly.

The first apparition of JFK’s future maladies struck when he was 14. Already thin, he suddenly began shedding weight at a dangerous rate until one day he simply collapsed. From that moment forward, intestinal issues were a frequent companion - stomach cramps, high fever, and vomiting. And nobody could figure out what was causing it.

But with Joe Senior’s money, every effort would be made to find a cure.

When Jack was 17, he was snuck away to the Mayo Clinic for a month of painful and embarrassing tests that, frankly, might make you lose your lunch if I went into detail. All I’m going to say is… there was a lot of probing. It did eventually lead to a diagnosis - a severe case of spastic colitis, also known as Irritabel Bowel Symdrome.

There was no cure, but there was a treatment - a treatment that would have disastrous consequences.

Jack was told to self implant experimental hormone pellets under his skin. He’d knick his leg with a knife, put a pellet in, and bandage it up. This can treat colitis, but if you keep giving your body hormones, your body can learn “hey, this is neat, I no longer have to produce these myself.” And that’s what Jack’s body did. As a result, Jack’s health only got worse later in life. His spine rotted away, resulting in the need for a back brace and causing him pain with every step, which he attempted to alleviate with heavy doses of narcotics. Jack also developed addison’s disease, which causes nausea, loss of appetite, chronic fatigue, and twice had priests administering Last Rites before he recovered.. 

The long and short of it is that every moment of Jack’s life was pain, and yet he never complained. He learned to cope by developing a sharp wit to protect himself and, later, charm others.

While these illnesses were enough to knock JFK out of school for months at a time, his father’s wealth and connections were enough to make sure he still got into Harvard, where Jack again lived in his older brother’s shadow. Junior was an athlete and active in Harvard student government. Jack slept with as many women as he could. 

Jack is the biggest womanizer we will cover in this show, period. Maybe sex was a coping mechanism for his frequent ailments, or maybe he was just copying the example of his father, who flaunted numerous affairs in front of the family - Joe senior was such a creeper, that he’d attempt to seduce his sons’ girlfriends when they stayed the night. This was Jack’s father figure. 

In other words, while other men might become presidents you wanted to have a beer with. John F Kennedy became the president you wanted to sleep with.

But, again, the presidency still wasn’t in the picture for Jack, that was Joe Junior’s destiny.

But that would change soon.

On December 7, 1942, say it with me, a day that will live in infamy, the United States was attacked by the empire of Japan. And the Kennedy boys wanted to enlist.

Joe junior got in no problem. He was picked up by the airforce and sent off to Europe to fight Nazi’s from the sky.

But Jack, well, what do you think happened when this skinny, sickly twig of a boy showed up at the enlistment office?

Have you ever seen the start of Captain America? Where Steve Rogers keeps getting rejected by doctors because he’s not healthy enough to fight? That’s what happened. With all Jack’s health conditions? There was no way he could fight. But JFK wanted in. So… he had Joe Sr. pull some strings. His medical history, a nightmare of hospital stays and suffering, was replaced with a fabricated clean bill of health. Joe Senior got Jack placed in a naval intelligence desk job, where his son’s life would never be in danger.

About that.

Jack didn’t just want to serve, he wanted to fight, so he asked his grandfather, ol’ honey Fitz, that former mayor of Boston who had his own array of political connections, to see what he could do, and honey Fitz came through. Jack was assigned to a torpedo boat - known as PT boats - and deployed to the South Pacific

Where he nearly died.

On August 1, 1943, Jack’s PT boat was one of 15 sent to ambush a Japanese convoy in the middle of the night, and pretty much everything went wrong. The torpedoes missed their targets, half the boats left, the others got lost in the dark, and then a Japanese destroyer that nobody saw coming - it was that pitch black - appeared out of the gloom and sliced Jack’s PT boat in half. 2 men died instantly while Jack and nine others were scattered.

Shouting to each other in the darkness, the survivors regrouped around the floating wreckage of their boat, but that started to sink. So they swam for an island 3 miles away, with Jack towing one injured man by taking a strap of the guy’s life jacket in his teeth - and yes, Kennedy was doing all of this with his wreck of a back.

The Island… was not much of an island. It was more of a sandbar. No food. No trees. No fresh water. Just sand, 70 feet of it.

But it did mean they wouldn’t drown.

For now.

Kennedy swam back out to sea with a lantern to try and flag passing boats, but they weren’t near any populated shipping lanes. Nobody was going to find them by chance. If they stayed on that sandbar, they were going to die on that sandbar, so the exhausted men began to swim again, aiming for a larger island and hoping to find water there.

They found something better. A small group of natives was on the island with food, water, and a canoe. Jack etched a message on a coconut shell and asked them to take it to a nearby military base. Two days later, the survivors were rescued. It had been 7 days since they’d been lost at sea, but they had survived.

The American government, looking for heroes and the PR value they brought, served Jack up to the press. And just like that, Jack became a hero.

His older brother wouldn’t be so lucky.

On August 12, 1944, roughly a year after Jack’s ordeal, Joe Kennedy Junior was sent on a bombing mission over germany, flying a plane equipped with experimental explosives. He never came back. The bombs exploded en route, killing all aboard.

The heir apparent was dead.

And that’s when life changed for Joe and John Kennedy.

Within a month of Junior’s death, Joe began plotting Jack’s political future. It was a future Jack wasn’t sure he wanted, but he knew that didn’t matter, saying “it was like being drafted. My father wanted his eldest son in politics. Wanted isn’t the right word. He demanded it. If (my older brother) we’re alive, I’d never be in this”

Joe Senior wasted little time getting to work.

Months after the war’s end, Joe approached a local Boston Congressman who he knew to be deeply in debt and he told the man, if you retire from Congress and run for mayor, I’ll pay off all your debt and fund your mayoral campaign. 

That’s not an offer you say no to. Just like that, Jack had a vacant seat to run for, but he still had to win it. Nine other candidates threw their hats into the ring, including some decent contenders. Joe couldn’t put them all up for mayor.

And Jack might have been one of the worst candidates of the lot.

Sure, Jack was a war hero with a decent resume - back before the war, Joe Sr. had used his vast fortune to turn Jack’s college thesis into a book, and then bought so many copies it became a best-seller, so he was a published, best-selling author. The problem was that, at this point in his career, Jack had no political charisma. 

That’s right, possibly the most charismatic president in American History was not a natural. He had to learn.

Jack was a poor speaker. He struggled to remember his lines. And he was terrible at mingling with his audience. He knew he was awful.

During those first few months of the campaign, Jack would often end up at his father’s dining table at night, lamenting at how poorly the day’s speeches had gone. But Joe would pep him back up, saying things like, “I was just on the phone with so and so who said the same event last year had 40 people and you had 90,” or “Mr who’s his face said last year’s speaker put him to sleep and you were much better.” And then his dad would ask, “What do you think you could have done better?” And the coaching would begin.

In the end, Jack won his first race. Not because he was any good at it, but because his dad had spent $270,000 - an absurd sum. As Joe said after the race, “with the money I spent, I could have elected my Chauffeur”

But money was nothing to Joe. Getting a Kennedy to the White House? That was everything.

As a congressman, Jack was, above all other things, a pragmatist. Whichever way the wind blew, you could find him there. When the red scare was ascendent, he counted men like Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy among his friends or Allies. When it ebbed, he walked away and found other issues to embrace. If Jack ever took a position that proved unpopular, he would anguish that he’d ruined his career. He hadn’t entered politics because he was an idealist, or even really to get anything done. He’d entered politics to become president, and, coached by his dad, he drifted toward the stances most likely to advance his career.

In 1952, the time for his next advancement had arrived. At the encouragement of his father, Jack threw his hat in the ring for the U.S. senate.

Now this would not be an easy race. The incumbent, Henry Cabot lodge jr, was an institution - Lodge’s father had been one of Theodore Roosevelt’s strongest Allies and one of Woodrow Wilson’s most implacable foes.

The Cabots were rich, but… they weren’t Kennedy rich.

Joe worked the system to get his money into Jack’s campaign. He stood up numerous shell committees to flout the $1,000 individual contribution limit and bet several million dollars on jack. When Joe learned an influential newspaper, the Boston Post, was about to go bankrupt, he lent the Post half a million dollars to keep it afloat, and then it endorsed his son.

On the issues, Jack and Lodge weren’t that different. They agreed on almost everything. But, thanks to his father’s coaching and encouragement, Kennedy had overcome his early discomfort to become a charismatic speaker and a hard campaigner. The introduction of cortisone, which controlled Jack’s Addison’s disease, gave him the strength to criss-cross the state on a grueling schedule. In a campaign where issues were moot, Kennedy had the charisma, the personal touch and, as, President Eisenhower put it, “Cabot was simply overwhelmed by money.”

Once in the Senate, Jack picked up the one thing he absolutely had to have to run for president - a wife. Jack had met Jacqueline Bouvier in 1951 and married her two years later. On the surface, it looked like a perfect marriage. Jackie hailed from another wealthy family and had the charm and beauty that such an upbringing provides. But behind the scenes, it was an unhappy pairing. Jack neglected Jackie for the office. He frequently cheated on her. It wasn’t uncommon for him to show up to a party with Jackie and to leave with another woman.

One summer, JFK was yachting with a friend in the Mediterranean, and having multiple affairs along the way, when Jackie, back home in the states, suffered a miscarriage. Jack’s response was, oh, too bad, who are we going to sleep with tonight? He didn’t go home until a friend told him a divorce would be bad politics. 

Two years later, Jack was caught on tape whispering to his Brother Ted at Ted’s wedding, quote “being married didn’t really mean that you had to be faithful to your wife.”

But whatever pain Jackie was feeling, she kept it hidden inside. To the public, they were Camelot.

Married, rich, and charismatic, Jack sought the vice presidency in 1956. He came up short, but impressed enough people in the party to be a favorite for the top job itself in 1960. There was just one problem - the United States had never elected a Catholic president, and quite a few people thought it never should.

When Jack’s younger brother Robert - also known as bobby - took over as campaign manager and performed some research to find the top reasons voters might not support Jack, the answers were age - at 42, going on 43, Kennedy would be the youngest person elected president if he won; an imperfectly liberal voting record - Kennedy really was more of a moderate, if not a conservative; and religion - catholic.

Kennedy felt the only way to prove to the democratic power brokers that, if nominated, he could win the presidency, was to run in the democratic primaries.

Now, the Democratic Party had been holding presidential primaries since 1912, but they didn’t always matter and not every state held one. As recently as 1952, the candidate who won the most primaries had still lost the party’s nomination at the convention.

So running in these primaries was a gamble for Kennedy. He could lose, and it might end his campaign. Or he could win, and it might not matter.

But he was convinced that, in 1960, the primaries would determine the presidential nominee. They would offer him a chance to prove the youngest candidate, the moderate candidate, the Catholic candidate could win elections in largely Protestant states. And if he proved that, the national convention just might go his way.

So Kennedy got to work.

The first primary was New Hampshire, but that was so close to Massachusetts that nobody ran against Kennedy and he won it by default. Boring.

The first contested primary was Wisconsin. Kennedy’s lone opponent was Hubert Humphrey, the so-called Happy Warrior from neighboring Montana. Humphrey was a few years older than Kennedy, was not Catholic, and had resoundingly strong liberal credentials, so he was well positioned to capitalize on Kennedy’s weaknesses.

Of the three, Kennedy’s catholicism became the loudest issue, despite Humphrey not touching it. Two days before the primary, the Milwaukee Journal listed the number of voters in each county under three headings: Republicans, Democrats, and Catholics. Joe Kennedy’s lavish spending may again have decided the race - Jack won by 12 points in the polls - but a careful look at the results showed that Kennedy had, indeed, performed best in catholic counties and worse in protestant counties.

Which was concerning for Jack, because the next primary on the docket was West Virginia, where Catholics only made up 4% of the population.

Everyone knew this was going to be the make-or-break primary of the season. And Kennedy started polling strong, with 70% of the vote to Humphrey’s 30%. But then local newspapers started writing more about Kennedy’s catholicism, and his support plummeted. He went from polling at 70% to polling at 40%. In case anyone wasn’t sure why, when Bobby Kennedy asked a room of supporters what the problem was, one yelled back, “There’s only one problem. He’s a catholic. That’s our god-damned problem!”

Kennedy responded by spending more time with voters and more money everywhere, and that proved decisive. Kennedy rallied to win 60% of the vote in West Virginia and Hubert Humphrey dropped out of the race that night.

But there was one last obstacle. A man who hadn’t even competed in the primaries. A man who had strong, institutional democratic support. A man who Kennedy had nearly been vice president to back in 1956 - Lyndon Baynes Johnson. LBJ.

For most of the 1950’s, LBJ had used his charm and guile to turn the traditionally unimportant role of Senate party leader into the most powerful Democratic position in Washington. In 1956, Joe Kennedy had approached LBJ with a proposition - if LBJ would run for president with Jack on his ticket as vice, Joe would bankroll the entire campaign. But LBJ didn’t think Eisenhower could be beat that year, so he said no, earning the eternal disdain of the Kennedy’s.

And that disdain got worse when, 5 days before the 1960 Democratic convention - after skipping all of the primaries - LBJ formally declared his candidacy for the nomination, and then had his partisans leak word that John F Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease.

Kennedy knew that if the public learned the extent of his health problems, he would never be elected president. So his campaign denied it. They lied. And whatever LBJ’s sources were, he wasn’t willing to expose them. So, without proof, the allegation went nowhere. By the skin of his teeth, John F Kennedy won the Democratic Nomination for president on the first ballot of the party’s convention. The secret sauce, in the end, had been his primary wins and Joe Kennedy’s money, which had stood up pro Kennedy organizations in every state across the country, ensuring even states without primaries were strongly for Kennedy at the Convention. 

So now Kennedy had to choose a vice president, and this is where you see how coolly pragmatic the Kennedy’s could be. For the vice presidency, Kennedy turned to the man he’d just defeated - LBJ. Sure, most of the Kennedy’s couldn’t stand Lyndon at this point, but they also knew they couldn’t win without Texas, and Johnson, a Texas senator, could deliver Texas.

The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon, ike’s vice president, to be their party’s standard bearer. For VP, Nixon tapped JFK’s old rival from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge - the man Kennedy had defeated for his senate seat.

As the rival tickets took shape, Kennedy was shocked to see Nixon performing better than expected in the polls and felt his Catholicism again must be to blame. So he decided to tackle the issue head on. On September 12, 1960, Kennedy gave a televised speech to a room of 300 protestant ministers in Houston, ignoring the advice of many who feared the ministers would be hostile no matter what he said. But Kennedy was nothing if not charming, and he won the crowd over, saying “I am not the catholic candidate for president. I am the democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a catholic.”

This didn’t mean the catholic issue was gone, but it helped, a lot.

Though the debate probably helped more.

After the Houston speech, Kennedy challenged Nixon to a series of televised presidential debates. Eisenhower warned Nixon not to do it, but Nixon was a skilled debater and confident he could get the better of Kennedy on the issues, so he said yes.

This proved costly. The first debate, September 26 in Chicago - the first televised presidential debate EVER - was a disaster for Nixon.

The problem was all in the optics. Kennedy appeared cool, confident, and in control. Nixon slouched, looked shadowy and shifty. And he sweat. A lot. At the end of the night, radio listeners thought Nixon had displayed a mastery of the issues, but the television audience thought Kennedy had looked more trustworthy, confident, and presidential. Given that 70% of eligible voters had watched the debate on TV, it had a huge impact. The debate was seen as such a mistake by Nixon, nobody would risk another presidential debate for 16 years.

But there was one final curveball for the candidates to navigate, one final october surprise that threatened to upset everything.

Two weeks before the election, October 19, 1960, Martin Luther King Junior, the prominent Civil Rights leader and minister, was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, during a peaceful protest at a department store, and sentenced to four months of jail and hard labor.

His pregnant wife, Loretta, feared King might be killed in prison - a threat that, yeah, was totally real - and she reached out to both campaigns, Nixon’s and Kennedy’s, to see if either candidate could help get her husband free.

Nixon, who had met and was on good terms with King, did nothing. 

Kennedy, who had never really shown much interest in African Americans or Civil Rights, called Loretta back and said his campaign would see what it could do.

When Bobby Kennedy heard that Jack had promised to help, he blew his top. Southern whites would not forgive this. He thought the race had just been lost, but he followed through on the pledge to help and made a call to the judge - who had let it be known that he’d set King free if anyone leaned on him - and King was released from prison.

When election day came a few days later, African American voters in key swing states did not forget which campaign had helped, and which had stood silent, when King had been in prison.

The final vote was incredibly close. Kennedy won 34.2 to 34.1 million in the popular vote and 303-219 in the electoral college, but the results in several states were quickly contested by Nixon’s partisans. In Texas, everyone assumed LBJ had rigged the vote. In Illinois, the state’s Democratic governor had declared a Kennedy victory before all the ballots were even cast. Nixon would privately growl the race had been stolen from him, but GOP recounts only confirmed the declared results - Kennedy had won, Nixon had lost, but he’ll be back.

And so, on January 20, 1961, 43-year old John F Kennedy, the war hero, womanizer, and spoiled son of Joe Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States - the first Catholic and youngest person ever elected to that role - Theodore Roosevelt was younger when he became president, but older when he won his first presidential election. But what did the world, and the country, look like when Kennedy became president? Let’s look around.

Internationally … European colonialism… was dying! 36 new countries had broken free of their imperial overlords in Africa and Southeast Asia in the 16 years since the end of World War II. But this wasn’t just a case of Europe letting the horses out of the barn. It required struggle, grit, and more than a few wars of independence. As JFK was being sworn in, France was waging a brutal war against Algerian freedom fighters, and horrified Americans thanked their lucky stars that they’d never be so foolish to get involved in a guerrilla war like that. Hah-hah!

Domestically, Hawaii and Alaska finally became states in 1959, bringing us up to our current 50-nifty united states. In entertainment, Alfred Hickcock’s famous thriller Psycho and Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird were released and published in 1960. And politically, Civil Rights was moving from the back page to the front page of America’s conscience in a big way. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a bus 5 years earlier, triggering the Montgomery bus boycott and the political emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. who was not going to be satisfied with the mere desegregation of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Kennedy… did almost nothing to address his domestic concerns. Seriously, the guy’s legislative accomplishments are quite minor. He whiffed on the big stuff. And some things that were entirely in his control, he dragged his feet on - like desegregating housing. He had campaigned for president on the promise to desegregate housing “at the stroke of a pen,” but was so slow to act that thousands of people started mailing him pens to prod him along. It took him 21 months to do even this.

But if the Domestic front was a quiet one, the international sphere was a five alarm fire that nearly plunged the world into Nuclear war.

And it started with Cuba.

Ok, so what was going on in Cuba? Well, when we last left Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt and the rough riders and a whole lotta other folks had just kicked the Spanish off the island during the Spanish-American war. The United States had then granted Cuba independence, with conditions. 1.) We got to keep Guantanamo Bay, and 2.) We could intervene militarily whenever we wanted.

And it turned out, we wanted to, frequently. American troops were deployed to Cuba to put down unrest and defend American business interests in 1906, 1912, and 1916. And to be fair, there was quite a bit of unrest. Numerous revolts rocked the island until a military dictator named Batista, who had basically been running the island since 1933, officially kicked Democracy out the window and took charge in 1952 - a move President Eisenhower allowed, so long as American business interests were protected.

That didn’t sit well with a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro, who spent several years leading a guerilla war against Batista before emerging victorious and seizing power in 1959. Once in charge, Castro initially tried to charm the Americans, but he also nationalized all American holdings on the island, without paying a penny for the assets seized. And, remember how I kept saying the only thing Americans really cared about in Cuba was their business interests? Yeah, this ticked Eisenhower off. Ike cut trade with Cuba, so Castro turned to the Soviet Union for trade and protection. Eisenhower responded by cutting diplomatic ties in January, 1961 - weeks before Kennedy’s inauguration. And that’s why, two days after entering office, the CIA approached Kennedy with a plan to invade Cuba.

The CIA’s pitch went like this - Hey Kennedy, remember that 1953 coup in Iran? That was us. How about the 1954 coup in Guatemala? That was also us. Congo, 1960? We’re really good at this.

And Cuba’s next. We have an army of Cuban Exiles camped out in Guatemala that we’ve been training for an invasion. We just have to give them money for boats to get them to the beaches and dissidents on the island will join them and overthrow Castro in days. 

AND if we don’t do it, those exiles will tell the press that we called off their secret invasion and the American people will think you’ve gone soft on Castro. Also, did you know Eisenhower personally endorsed this plan? So, when do we go? We’d like to land the exiles at a place called Bay of Pigs.

Kennedy… was dubious. The state department warned him the idea was crazy and would have major consequences at the U.N. and throughout latin America. The U.S. Army told JFK the plan should work, but what they didn’t tell Kennedy is they only felt that way because they thought the beach landing would be such a fiasco that kennedy would be forced to send in the U.S. military and that was the fight they could win. When Kennedy described the CIA’s plan to Truman’s old secretary of state, Dean Acheson, Acheson replied “are you serious?” and then Acheson asked Kennedy, how many exiles could the CIA land? Nearly 1,500, Kennedy replied. And how many men does castro command? 25,000, Kennedy replied. And then Acheson said, “It doesn’t take Price Waterhouse to figure out that 1,500 aren’t as good as 25,000.”

Which was a good point.

But Kennedy gave the go-ahead anyway.

On April 15, 1961, eight B-26 bombers, painted in the colors of Cuba’s airforce and flying from Nicaragua, kicked off the operation by bombing Castro’s air fields. But problems began immediately. This bombing run was supposed to neutralize Castro’s airforce, but it only damaged 5 of Castro’s 36 aircraft, which meant Castro’s planes would be in the sky when the exiles landed. 

One of the American B-26’s flew to Miami, where its CIA-trained pilot declared himself a defector fleeing Cuba - a key part of the cover story - but the story quickly crumbled. The press had heard the rumors of American-trained cuban exiles mustering in Nicaragua - it had been in the friggin newspapers. When the invasion landed 2 days later, it never got off the beaches. As the operation fell apart, the U.S. army pressed Kennedy to launch a real invasion with American troops, but Kennedy had seen quite enough and stood firm. He wouldn’t let his first mistake become a bigger one. Instead, he confessed to what the whole world had already figured out - The United States was responsible for the Bay of Pigs invasion. 

The crazy thing is though… when Jack went on national TV and explained himself, the american people forgave him. Shoot, His approval rating actually went up.

But the rest of the world…

Well. Consequences were coming.

But first, 8 months later, December, 1961, Jack’s father, Joe Kennedy, suffered a stroke that left him half paralyzed and unable to speak clearly. The first two days after the stroke, he couldn’t even recognize his son. Joe spent his final 8 years an invalid - something that must have been shocking for Jack to witness, and also something that feels just so tragic, being laid low so soon after Joe’s life’s work - putting a kennedy in the white house - had been realized.

Daddy Kennedy wouldn’t be around to bail his son out of hot water any more.

And that hot water was about to boil over.

In the autumn of 1962, Soviet Union premier Nikita Krushchev, who had vowed after the Bay of Pigs to give Cuba “All necessary help to repel armed attack,” decided that help should come in the form of nuclear warheads.

40 nuclear missiles, 40,000 troops, and a naval base with nuclear-armed submarines was Kruschev’s plan for Cuba - and this wasn’t just about defending Cuba. Krushchev was relatively new in his role and wanted to look strong for his audience at home and on the global stage. Krushchev hoped to sneak everything into Cuba secretly and then demand american concessions - just picture doctor evil bribing world leaders for “One million dollars.”

For Kruschev’s plan to work, it had to be a surprise.

But then, the Americans found out.

On October 14, 1962 - acting on reports from intelligence - a U2 spy plane flew over Cuba and confirmed the presence of offensive nuclear weapons and the ongoing construction of pads they could be launched from. Kennedy was informed two days later, October 16. It was estimated the missiles would be ready to launch in days.

Kennedy was in a pickle. He had publicly vowed to never allow nukes in Cuba, so he had no wiggle room - he could not allow the nukes to stay. But now that the soviets were building launch pads, what could he do to stop them?

Kennedy was presented with three options:

  1. Do nothing. This ain’t worth a shooting war. Advisors pointed out the United States had recently deployed similar nuclear missiles to Turkey, so this was kind of just the Soviets matching an American move.
  2. This is totally worth a shooting war. Hit them hard. Hit them now. Hit them without warning. Launch a surprise attack.
  3. Declare a blockade around the islands and search any ship that wants to go through until the nukes are removed.

At first Kennedy favored the surprise attack, but then his brother Bobby, who Jack had appointed Attorney General, passed him a note that read, “I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor,” and Bobby gave an impassioned speech against a surprise attack, saying it would be Pearl Harbor again, but this time with unprovoked Americans dropping the bombs. JFK was convinced. On Monday, October 22, 6 days after the presence of nukes was confirmed, he announced a quarantine of Cuba. The navy would be deployed. Any ships approaching the quarantine line would be searched. U2 flights would continue over Cuba and if any were shot down, the offending SAM site would be bombed in retaliation.

With that announcement, the world was on notice. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

The first test of the quarantine line came two mornings later, October 24, when the first soviet ships were tracking to reach the line. For Kennedy, this was a morning of anxiety. He was supposed to be the most powerful person in the world, but he was powerless, waiting to hear if World War 3 had started. Then word came through, the Russian vessels had begun to turn around. It wouldn’t be war, yet.

But there were still more soviet ships on the way, still nukes on the island, and launch pads were still under construction. In fact, U2 flights confirmed construction had sped up!

Kennedy’s military advisors were again advising him to attack. But Kennedy kept putting that off. He wouldn’t let the russians get their launch pads up and running, but he wasn’t going to bomb them until the last possible moment. He needed to give peace a chance. He needed to give Krushchev time to think.

On Friday, October 26, Krushchev’s thinking on this game of nuclear chicken turned into panic. A long and rambling letter from Krushchev arrived at the white house - Kruschev was willing to remove the missiles if Kennedy vowed to never invade Cuba.

Kennedy was relieved. An exchange of no missiles for a promise of no invasion? That’s a deal! But before he could celebrate, a second, more polished letter came through, with tougher demands, and this time it was shared publicly. Krushchev repeated the earlier deal, no missiles, no invasion, but added another requirement - the United States must remove those nuclear missiles from Turkey. It had to be a fair trade.

What to do about this? Kennedy had been thinking of removing its missiles from turkey anyway - they were obsolete models and the United States had other, newer nukes around the soviet union. But if Jack agreed to it as part of a deal for removing nukes from Cuba, Europe would feel betrayed and the NATO alliance would be undermined. The world would think the United States had been bullied into removing its missiles from turkey.

What to do?

And then Jack and his advisors landed on the solution - PUBLICLY, they would accept the first letter and ignore the second letter and its requirement to remove the missiles from turkey. Privately, Bobby Kennedy would tell the russian ambassador that, if the missiles were removed from Cuba, the united states would likely remove its missiles from Turkey if Russia kept that part of the deal secret.

But before Bobby could have that chat, boom - the cubans shot an American U2 spy plane out of the sky. 

You know what the joint chiefs were saying - the russians fired first! That’s our excuse, send the troops against cuba NOW! But Kennedy again held firm - at some point commenting, “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor. If we do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them they were wrong.”

Despite Kennedy’s earlier threat that if any U2’s were shot down, he would retaliate against the SAM site, Jack let it slide. Bobby Kennedy’s meeting with the russian ambassador went forward as planned, but after the meeting, Bobby reported back to Jack that it hadn’t gone well.

That night, Kennedy went to bed knowing American bombers with soviet targets were circling the arctic waiting for a go-ahead, American destroyers and Russian subs were stalking each other in the Caribbean, and U.S. marines were boarding landing ships in gulf of Mexico, ready to invade Cuba if the order came. Cuba’s nuclear launch pads were almost ready. Time would soon run out. If Krushchev didn’t accept Jack’s offer the following morning, it could all be over.

All eyes were on the last russian ship approaching the quarantine line, tracking to hit it around 8 am. Would it be war, or peace?

Then, just before the russian ship reached the quarantine line, it stopped. A news bulletin flashed - Krushchev had accepted Kennedy’s public offer. The russians would remove their missiles if the Americans promised to never invade cuba. Secretly, the outdated american missiles in turkey would also be removed at a later date.

And everyone let out a deep breath. Everyone, except the joint chiefs who, I kid you not, were still telling Kennedy to attack Cuba and insisting he’d been duped.

It’s like they were all auditioning for roles in Dr. Strangelove. Goodness.

The cuban missile crisis is the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Would it have happened if Kenendy hadn’t ordered the bay of pigs? I don’t know.
Would Kennedy have had the courage and wisdom to stand up to his military advisors if they hadn’t failed him during the Bay of Pigs? Probably not.

All I know for sure is it’s a hell of a story.

But this wouldn’t be the last international incident in which John F Kennedy played a starring role.

Because half a world away in vietnam, things were getting bad.

Remember, Vietnam had tried to declare independence from France in 1945 and cozy up to the United States, only for the French to threaten to join the Soviet orbit if the Americans didn’t stay out of the fight. So we stayed out. And vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh said, well, if the Americans won’t support us, maybe the soviets will. As it turned out, the soviets would. With help from Russia, Ho Chi Minh defeated France and accepted a peace treaty that split vietnam in two - a communist north and a capitalist south. When the south refused to hold a promised referendum about reunification, because it knew it would likely lose the vote. The north realized reunification would have to happen by force, and so force was brought to bear.

Eisenhower had sent money, supplies, and a limited number of advisors - basically, engineers who could make the equipment work - to support the south in this guerilla war against northern infiltrators and sympathizers - the vietcong. And that’s what Kennedy inherited in 1961. A Civil war in vietnam with 685 american advisors in the field.

By 1963, that war was going badly. Kennedy had increased the number of American advisors from 685 to 11,300 and increased funding for civics projects intended to show the benefits of democracy to the vietnamese people, but money and soldiers could do nothing to shore up the rot in South Vietnam’s government. South Vietnam was led by a military dictator named No Ding Zien, who had taken over after the French left. Zien ran the country as a family operation. His brother Nho commanded a secret police that was every bit as brutal as any communist dictator’s, and Nho’s wife, Madam Nho, was an anti-Buddhist zealot who once told an American journalist, “Vietnam has no use for your crazy freedoms.”

Kennedy wanted to get out of Vietnam, but he feared he’d never be reelected if he did. So he looked for solutions instead. And that’s what led him to the coup of 63.

In the summer of 1963, South Vietnamese buddhists were protesting the anti-buddhist dictatorship of Zien, brother Nho, and Madam Nho. But these weren’t like any protest you’ve seen. Buddhist monks would douse themselves in kerosene and light themselves on fire in the streets. Zien responded with a crackdown and roundup of 14,000 buddhists. Martial law was imposed and public meetings forbidden. When college students joined the buddhist protesters, Zien shut down the universities. When high schoolers walked out in protests, he closed all the schools.

JFK should have seized this opportunity to cut bait and withdraw from Vietnam. Instead, he sent his old rival, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., to South Vietnam as the new american ambassador. Lodge told Zien to cut the anti-Buddhist bullshit. When Zien didn’t, Kennedy had Lodge sound out South vietnamese generals on the idea of a coup.

They were receptive.

Kennedy danced around the idea of the coup for weeks. Sometimes preferring it, sometimes leaning away from it. The last message he had Lodge relay to the plotters was the U.S. wouldn’t endorse a coup, but it wouldn’t stop one, either.

On Nov. 1, 1963, the generals launched a coup. Zien and brother Nho were captured at a church they’d taken refuge in and murdered the following day. Madam Nho survived - she’d been out of country when the generals struck. When Kennedy learned Zien had been murdered, he was shocked.

The answer to that last question is the public would indeed turn on the new government. South Vietnam would never be stable again. But that wouldn’t be Kennedy’s problem. Because less than a month later, on November 22, 1963, John F Kennedy was driving through Dallas in an open motorcade when, Lee Harvey Oswald, a nobody former marine, fired three shots at Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The first shot missed. The second hit Kennedy, and should have knocked him over and out of the assassin’s view, but the back brace Jack wore for his Addison’s kept him upright - that’s when a third bullet struck the back of Kennedy’s head, killing him. 

Some people try to build up conspiracy theories around this assassination, but I don’t buy any of it. Sometimes the easiest explanation is the best one. Oswald acted alone. Just like Guiteau acted alone when he murdered president Garfield, Czolgosz acted alone when he killed McKinley, and, the idiots who shot or tried to shoot Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

It is tragically easy to buy a gun and kill someone in this country. It’s natural to think that life isn’t this random, that some loser with a gun can murder a president and change the course of history. But they can. They do. It happened in Dallas.

John F Kennedy was only 46 years old.

In the next car back, riding behind Kennedy that fateful Dallas day, vice president Lyndon Baynes Johnson was pressed to the floor by his protection detail and sped to safety. A national crisis, Jack’s stalled agenda, and a war in Vietnam were all going to be his problem soon.

So how had the United States changed during the nearly 3 years of the Kennedy administration? 

Well, there is one other big domestic story and one other big international story I want to hit on before we go. Domestically, I want to talk about James Merideth. Meredith was an air force veteran who wanted to attend college at Ole Miss, but the university and the governor wanted to keep him out. Why? Because he was black. Meredith sued and took his case to the supreme court, which ruled in 1962 that he must be admitted to the university. This caused a riot to break out at Ole Miss. A mob of angry whites attacked U.S. Marshalls who’d been stationed to protect Meredith. 206 marshalls were injured, 200 rioters were arrested, and 2 died. Meredith was finally allowed to register for courses days later and, protected by federal troops for more than a year, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1963. Meredith’s statue now stands on Ole’ Miss campus, honoring his successful integration of the university, but vandals still attack the statue. A noose was found around its neck as recently as 2014. 

Civil Rights man… this is not that long ago.

Internationally, the Kennedy administration is when the Berlin Wall went up. Berlin had been a flash point of east-west tension since the end of World War II - we all remember when Stalin imposed a blockade and Truman ordered the Berlin Airlift to save the city in 1948. Well, access had been restored, but the russians and americans always seemed to be one foolish mistake away from going to war there. And the soviets were especially ticked off, because their citizens kept defecting through the city to the American side.

So, in 1961, Krushchev, in his desperation, ordered the building of the Berlin wall. Nobody would easily escape the soviet union again.

The germans, the americans, and the world were outraged, but Kennedy saw the wall as a gift. As long as it stood, it would serve as a reminder that the soviet union needed walls to keep its people in, and the united states and the soviet union would never near blows over Berlin again. As Kennedy put it, “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

Beyond the big stories, the Kennedy years were also a busy time for the supreme court - In Mapp v Ohio, the Supreme court ruled illegally obtained materials could not be used at trial - somehow that hadn’t been a rule yet. and In Engel v Vitale, the court ruled public institutions, such as school systems, could not require prayer/

So what can we learn from John F. Kennedy? I think Kennedy teaches us the value of good PR. There were not a lot of wins during Kennedy’s years in office. He resisted his generals’ calls to start world war 3 during the cuban missile crisis, but that’s about it. What Kennedy did have was weekly press conferences where he spoke directly to the american people, apologized for his mistakes, and explained his decisions. After he died, his acolytes told the brightest possible version of the John F Kennedy story, glossing over the womanizing, lies, and failures, and portraying Kennedy as a liberal champion - something he just wasn’t.

But hey, leading is often about messaging, and Kennedy shows us that sometimes the story you tell is the story people remember.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The primary biography for today’s episode was An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963, by Robert Dallek

In our next episode, we’re doing something special. In 2 days, Nov 22, 2023, it will be the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. And I am going to put out a special interview that day with Stephen Fagin, the curator of the Sixth Floor Museum on Dealey Plaza - yes, that Dealey plaza. The old Texas school book repository that Oswald assassinated JFK from is now a museum and, I must say, a very good one. So, on Nov. 22, 2023, we will look back, 60 years ago, at what happened that day in Dallas and why it has become subject to so much doubt and so many conspiracy theories since.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.