The son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a wealthy Boston business owner and former ambassador to Great Britain, John F. Kennedy (JFK) graduated from Harvard University and (beginning in 1946) represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. In 1952, he was elected to the Senate and, in 1960, won the Democratic nomination for President.
For many American liberals who were concerned with civil rights and economic opportunity for all, Kennedy represented a bright future in which the U.S. would solve any problem that it faced. This view was partly a result of the style and attitude that Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, conveyed.
John F. Kennedy’s (left) political style and optimism was on display during the first televised presidential debates in American history. Millions of viewers watched the debates between Kennedy and his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon (right), and millions more listened to them on the radio. Radio listeners judged Nixon the winner, while those who watched the debates on television believed that the more telegenic Kennedy was the winner.
Despite Kennedy’s appeal to liberals and television viewers, the election of 1960 was very close.
Following his inauguration, Kennedy focused much of his attention on foreign policy. In addition to the events in Cuba that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had to deal with a deteriorating situation in southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam.
After declaring independence from France in 1945, the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh and a Vietnamese nationalist movement known as the Viet Minh became engaged in a long and bitter conflict with the French, who sought to maintain their imperial control of the country. The U.S., beginning with President Harry Truman, supported its European ally.
EXAMPLEAlthough Truman and Eisenhower refused to send U.S. troops to fight with the French in Vietnam, they provided vital financial and material aid to the extent that, by 1954, the U.S. was paying most of the cost of France’s war.
The Viet Minh defeated the French in the spring of 1954. Subsequent peace agreements divided Vietnam into northern and southern nations. National elections to select a government to reunify the country were scheduled for 1956.
Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh controlled North Vietnam. In South Vietnam, a staunchly anti-communist and French-educated Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, attempted to consolidate his control. After a fraudulent election in 1955, Diem proclaimed himself President of the Republic of Vietnam. With support from the Eisenhower administration, which believed that the Viet Minh were controlled by the Soviet Union and communist China, Diem canceled the elections to select a reunification government that were scheduled for 1956.
Realizing that Diem would never agree to reunification of the country under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the North Vietnamese began to undermine his government by encouraging insurgents to attack South Vietnamese officials.
EXAMPLEIn 1960, North Vietnam created the National Liberation Front (NLF), known in the United States as the Viet Cong, to fight the Diem regime in the South.
To contain communism in southeast Asia, the Eisenhower administration supported Diem’s government with money and military advisors, even though he was an oppressive and corrupt ruler. Diem’s regime was supported by wealthy, Catholic landowning families in South Vietnam, which alienated many poor farmers, students, and Buddhists.
in the aftermath of the close election, Kennedy, an ardent cold warrior, refused to allow the loss of South Vietnam to communism. He continued to supply the Diem regime with financial and military support.
There were 16,000 American soldiers in South Vietnam by November of 1963. They trained members of South Vietnam’s special forces and flew air missions that sprayed a defoliant chemical known as “Agent Orange” across the countryside to expose North Vietnamese and NLF forces and their supply routes.
Despite continued American support, Diem’s government faltered. In October of 1963, one month before his fateful trip to Dallas, Kennedy approved a military coup against the Diem regime. By 1964, South Vietnam appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
Although Kennedy wanted to focus on the Cold War, domestic developments surrounding the civil rights movement, in which agitation and nonviolent protests were being met with violent resistance, required his attention. The movement was being advanced by the residents of specific communities (including students), as it had been during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This was especially true of the sit-in movement that had emerged by 1960.
On February 1, 1960, four sophomores at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College in Greensboro — Ezell Blair, Jr., Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, and Franklin McCain — entered the local Woolworth’s and sat at the lunch counter. The lunch counter was segregated, and they were refused service.
Over the next few days, more protesters joined the four sophomores at Woolworth’s counter. Hostile whites responded with threats and taunted the students by pouring sugar and ketchup on their heads. Nevertheless, within two months, the sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities in nine states.
To coordinate student protests in Greensboro and elsewhere, Ella Baker and other grassroots activists organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In the spring of 1961, members of SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), another prominent civil rights organization, organized “freedom rides” to test the enforcement of a recent Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation on interstate transportation.
Departing from Washington, DC, on May 4th, black and white “freedom riders” traveled south. By the time they reached Alabama, where they met open resistance from southern whites, the Kennedy administration was forced to intervene by dispatching federal marshals.
In the photograph above, “freedom riders” near Anniston, Alabama, escape from a bus after a white mob slit its tires and tossed a firebomb inside.
When the “freedom riders” reached Birmingham, Alabama, members of the Ku Klux Klan and mobs of local whites (like those pictured above) attacked them with fists, baseball bats, pipes, and chains.
President Kennedy stated his support for civil rights during the presidential campaign, but he lacked sufficient support to advance a civil rights agenda in Congress, especially among southern white Democrats. He feared a loss of Congressional support for his foreign policy goals if he pursued an aggressive civil rights agenda.
The violence that occurred during the “freedom rides”, and the continued agitation of civil rights activists, ultimately forced Kennedy to take action. On certain occasions, he was required to use the authority of the executive branch to protect African Americans.
EXAMPLEIn the photograph above (from the Library of Congress), James Meredith (center) attempts to enroll at the segregated University of Mississippi in 1962. When riots broke out on campus, President Kennedy sent the Army to restore order. U.S. Marshals ensured that Meredith was able to attend classes.
In the summer of 1963, Kennedy responded to civil rights activists, indicating that his administration supported a civil rights bill that would increase the federal government's power to enforce school desegregation, prohibit segregation in public accommodations, and outlaw employment discrimination. In a national broadcast in June, Kennedy appealed to the conscience of the nation when announcing his intentions:
Perhaps the most famous of the civil rights-era demonstrations was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (a), held in August of 1963, to build support for the civil rights bill then making its way through Congress. As the crowd gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial and across the National Mall (b) Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he called for an end to racial injustice in the United States and envisioned a harmonious, integrated society.
Unfortunately, President Kennedy did not live to see the civil rights bill enacted, or to decide how the U.S. would deal with instability in southeast Asia. On November 22, 1963, he was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding in a motorcade through Dallas.
It fell to Kennedy’s Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson, to secure the passage of the civil rights bill.
By the time of Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights bill had been passed in the House of Representatives, but was stalled in the Senate. Johnson, who was the Senate Majority Leader before becoming Vice President, used his political influence, and the memories of his fallen predecessor, to end a filibuster that had been launched by 18 southern Democratic Senators and one Republican to prevent its passage. On July 2, 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.
The act contained strong provisions that accomplished the following:
The Civil Rights Act became a key component of Lyndon Johnson’s plan for a Great Society.
In November of 1964, Johnson was elected President in his own right in an overwhelming victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.
In January of 1965, with commanding Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, Johnson began to implement his vision for the Great Society. In the course of combating racial discrimination and attempting to eliminate poverty, Johnson expanded the power of the federal government and redefined American liberalism.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: debate between Kennedy and Nixon, PD, http://bit.ly/2pB0FfH Ella Baker, PD: http://bit.ly/2oPZjyp Freedom Riders, PD: http://bit.ly/1XpQeHM white mob attack, PD: http://bit.ly/2p1uqTU Johnson takes oath, PD: http://bit.ly/2polNFr 1964 election, PD: http://bit.ly/2oYs5Iv Kennedy’s civil rights announcement- June 1963- John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Television Network Columbia Broadcasting System Collection. Retrieved 5/1/17 from: http://bit.ly/2fAh9zi Derived from Openstax tutorial 29.1-29.3 http://bit.ly/2rREqmOSome sections edited