In January 1961 John F Kennedy became the US’s youngest president at the age of 43 He was a glamorous leader - attractive, wealthy, well-educated and witty. He was also married to a beautiful and cultured woman, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. He had served in World War Two and been decorated as a hero.
JFK’s Election JFK was a Democrat. His Republican rival, Richard Nixon, was much more well- known than he. Kennedy had charm and charisma, and he performed well in his televised debates with Nixon He also spent a lot of time meeting ordinary people – important for an upper class politician like Kennedy. JFK won, but only just! A mere 120 000 votes separated the two candidates.
Problems facing JFK at home Unemployment was rising. It had more than doubled in the years since the early 1950s Youth rebellion was hitting the country Women were increasingly resentful about their place in society Black people resented the fact that the government seemed to be doing little to address the civil rights issue.
Problems facing JFK abroad The Cold War was continuing, and the USA faced a Communist Soviet Union whose military might was, the Americans thought, equal to, if not greater than, its own. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader
Kennedy’s “New Frontier” In his acceptance speech as Democratic candidate, JFK promised the American people a “New Frontier”. He said: “We stand on the edge of a New Frontier – the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils – a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams…..The New Frontier would deal with unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”
Attitudes towards J F Kennedy Some Americans despised JFK because of his privileged, upper class background. They believed that his millionaire father had “bought” his political success. Some believed that his willingness to seek agreement with the USSR, and to sell it wheat as a friendly gesture, meant that he was “soft on communists”. He was particularly hated in the south because he was a northerner who sympathised with the plight of black Americans. He was the USA’s first Roman Catholic president, and some disapproved of his religion. On the other hand, he was an inspiring and charismatic leader. He had great charm and offered hope for the future during the uncertainties of the Cold War.
JFK and Civil Rights Kennedy was keen to enhance civil rights, but he knew he would face opposition in Congress. Congress was dominated by Democrats, but the southern Democrats would not support civil rights legislation. He did, however, make gestures of support towards black people. He appointed five black federal judges – including Thurgood Marshall. He also sent troops to the University of Mississippi so that a black student, James Meredith, could take up his studies.
JFK and Civil Rights cont…. In February 1963, JFK decided the time was right to propose a new civil rights bill to Congress. There were many objections to it. In August, Martin Luther King led a march of 200 000 through Washington in support of the bill, but it was still rejected by Congress. However, on 22 November 1963, JFK was assassinated. Congress rapidly changed its attitude to his civil rights proposals as a wave of sympathy for the dead president swept the country. A tougher version of the bill was passed in 1964. It gave black people greater voting rights and equality in public housing and education.
Social Justice Kennedy planned to help other underprivileged groups within the USA, as well as black Americans He aimed to provide free medical care for the elderly, more federal money for housing and education, and a rise in unemployment and social security benefits. However, his Medicare Bill, which would have provided free medical care for the elderly, was thrown out by Congress. Neither was he able to spend more money on education.
Successes in Social Justice Social Security benefits were extended to each child whose father was unemployed The minimum wage was raised from $1 to $1.25 an hour, and three million more workers were entitled to by paid it Federal loans were given to low income families to help them buy their own homes The government provided grants to the states so that they could extend the period covered by unemployment benefit.
JFK’s Speech on the day he became president in January 1961 “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered [strengthened] by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace…..[The speech asked Americans] to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Why did Kennedy not achieve more? Some Democrats, and most Republicans, in Congress thought his New Frontier programme was socialist and therefore “un-American” Many in Congress still believed in “rugged individualism”; that Americans should stand on their own two feet and not rely on the state for hand-outs Kennedy made little effort to encourage leading members of Congress to support his New Frontier policies.
Why did Kennedy not achieve more? Foreign affairs were his real passion Southern Democrats, as well as Republicans, opposed his civil rights policies. They thought that if they did support civil rights, then they would lose the votes of whites in the south. Moreover, some of the Southern Democrats were racist themselves. Kennedy knew he needed the support of these “Dixiecrats”, as they were often known, to help his 1964 re-election campaign.
Why did Kennedy not achieve more? His policies would have been expensive, and would have led to an increase in federal taxes. Congress was reluctant to sanction this Kennedy died with a year of his term as president still remaining. Had he lived, he may have achieved more.