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Defining moments from John F. Kennedy’s life

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

In the spirit of remembering this historic event and honoring Kennedy, here is a list of his most defining life moments.

1937 — Joseph Kennedy Sr. is appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom

While Kennedy was attending Harvard, his father was appointed as FDR’s representative to the United Kingdom. This allowed Kennedy to go and spend time in Europe with his father. Between 1937-39, either for personal reasons or working on behalf of his father, Kennedy would travel through most of Europe, the Soviet Union and the Middle East, gaining experience in international politics.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Kennedy had just returned from Germany and was present at the House of Commons for the declaration of war. A few days later, Kennedy was sent as his father’s representative to arrange for aid of American victims from the German sinking of ocean liner SS Athenia, in which dozens of Americans were killed or stranded.

1940 — “Why England Slept”

While war waged in Europe, Kennedy returned home to finish his studies at Harvard. While there, he wrote his thesis on why the United Kingdom has postponed the war by attempting to appease Hitler in Czechoslovakia and Spain. Titled “Why England Slept,” what was originally just going to be a thesis paper turned into a national best-seller.

1941 — JFK joins the U.S. Navy

After being turned away from the U.S. Army due to chronic lower back pain, Kennedy was able to join the U.S. Navy after the director of naval intelligence — a friend of Kennedy’s father — intervened to get him accepted.

Originally serving as an ensign in the Secretary of the Navy’s Office, after the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Kennedy was transferred into the officers program and wound up commanding a patrol boat in Panama and later in the South Pacific.

Aug. 2, 1943 — PT-109 rammed by Japanese destroyer

On Aug. 2, while performing nighttime patrols with two other patrol (PT) boats, Kennedy’s PT was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in the dark and quickly sank.

Kennedy gathered the survivors around the wreckage and asked the men if they wanted to surrender to the Japanese or attempt to get to safety on their own, saying, “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.”

The men choose to fight on and swam toward a small island nearby. Kennedy would tow a severely wounded man with him as he swam by holding the man’s life jacket in his teeth as he swam.

Eventually rescued, Kennedy’s actions would earn him the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

1944 — Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr., dies

While Kennedy had long worked with his father, the presumptive political giant in the family was JFK’s older brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr., who had been prepared almost from birth to one day be president.

However, in 1944, while flying a suicide B-24 bomber, laden with explosives and intended to be remotely piloted into German gun positions in northern France, Joseph’s plane blew up prematurely, moments before he and his copilot — needed to make sure the plane got off the runway and flying — were set to bail out.

Joseph’s death left a hole in the family, which his father, Joseph Kennedy Sr., was quick to fill with his next son, JKF. Joseph had been planning on running for the Massachusetts 11th District seat in 1946. With Joseph dead, Kennedy assumed the role of running for the seat after the war ended.

1945 — Reporter for Hearst Newspapers

Intending for JKF to fulfill the political ambitions of his first son, Joseph Kennedy Sr. arranged for JFK to work as a special reporter for Hearst Newspapers after he was discharged from the Navy in March 1945. The main goal was to keep JFK, already somewhat of a war hero for his actions in the South Pacific, in the public eye, although it also had the effect of opening up the world of journalism to Kennedy.

He worked there for several months, covering such events as the Potsdam conference, furthering his experience with international politics.

1946 — Kennedy wins the Massachusetts 11th District seat in the House

In a planned succession by Kennedy’s father, Kennedy handily won the House seat of the Massachusetts 11th District as a Democrat. He would serve as a representative for the next six years.

1948 — Kennedy is diagnosed with Addison’s disease

While on a trip to the U.K after winning his second term in the House, Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison’s disease in which the adrenal glands fail to produce enough steroid hormones, leading to stomach pains, sleepiness and other effects.

The diagnosis was kept from the public.

1952 — Kennedy beats Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., R-Massachusetts, to become a United States senator

Marking both the end and the beginning of dynasties in Massachusetts, Kennedy ran against Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., whose family had connections to the very first Puritans to settle the state and were considered the apex of “blue blood” political families in New England.

Lodge had previously been a popular senator in Massachusetts, having been the senator since 1936, except for a period in World War II where he was the first sitting senator since the Civil War to resign his seat to serve in the military. However, that didn’t stop Kennedy from winning by a large margin in the 1952 elections, ending the Lodge dynasty and beginning the Kennedy dynasty in New England politics.

1953 — Marries Jacqueline Bouvier

Although the two had met at several high society events in New England before, they were formally introduced at a dinner party in May 1952. At first busy with his Senate campaign, after his victory JFK spent an increasing amount of time with Jacqueline, and the couple officially announced their engagement on June 25, 1953.

Despite a life of glamour on the outside, the couple often endured hardships together, including JFK’s Addison’s disease, two nearly fatal spine surgeries and a miscarriage and a still-born daughter from Jacqueline.

1960 — Wins the presidential election of 1960 to become the first Catholic president

In 1960, Kennedy ran against Vice President Richard Nixon for president of the United States.

During the campaign, questions came up about Kennedy’s religion. In a country that had never had anything other than protestant presidents, Kennedy’s Catholicism was met with suspicion and occasional hostility. In response, Kennedy stated that, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party candidate for president who also happens to be a Catholic.” He also reminded the nation that “No one asked me my religion in the South Pacific.”

Kennedy went on to win the election with 49.7 percent of the popular vote and 303 electoral college votes.

January 1961 — Kennedy’s inauguration speech

Kennedy’s speech perhaps was the most memorable inauguration speech of any president.

”And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

”My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

”Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

March 1961 — Creation of the Peace Corps

Kennedy was an outspoken advocate of helping Third World and developing countries, and to this end one of his first acts was the creation of the Peace Corps to help developing countries. Since 1961, 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps.

April 1961 — Bay of Pigs invasion

A U.S. backed and funded attempt by Cuban refugees from Fidel Castro’s Communist government to restore a U.S. backed government, the three-day amphibious assault on the island ended in defeat for the Cubans sent there, despite U.S. airpower providing cover. It was one of the first major international incidents of Kennedy’s presidency.

June 1961 — The Vienna Conference

Early in his presidency, Kennedy mistook a procedural domestic speech about war against American imperialism from Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev as direct threats against America. This caused military tensions between the two superpowers to build up.

To solve the tension, the two leaders agreed to a conference in neutral Austria. The conference did not end well in Kennedy’s eye, however Khrushchev walked away convinced that Kennedy was willing to go to war if he had to, and took steps to calm things down.

September 1962 — Space race

Going into the 1960s it appeared that the Soviet Union had a technological edge when it came to the space race, sending several satellites and astronauts into orbit while the U.S. space program was in its infancy.

To this end, Kennedy expanded the U.S. space program, aiming to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade (and before the Russians).

”We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. … It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the presidency.”

October 1962 — Cuban Missile Crisis

Possibly the definitive moment of Kennedy’s political career, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred after the U.S. obtained photos of Soviet nuclear missile emplacements being installed in Cuba, just 110 miles from the United States.

Determined not to let the Soviets obtain a nuclear base that close to the United States, Kennedy imposed an embargo on Cuba (that still stands today) in order to stop the Soviets from shipping actual missiles to the island.

The Soviets eventually backed down, but not before tensions got high enough for the world to expect nuclear war to break out at any time.

June 1963 — Kennedy calls civil rights a “moral crisis” for the United States

Kennedy today is not remembered as the strongest of supporters for civil rights. While certainly not happy about the treatment of blacks in the U.S., Kennedy is often remembered for tip-toeing around the issue as best he could to avoid destabilizing the status quo, and it wasn’t until LBJ became president that true civil rights reform took place.

This is not entirely true, as a few months before he was assassinated, Kennedy gave what some consider to be his best speech, in which he embraced the cause of civil rights and called it a “moral crisis” for America.

”One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

”We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home, but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly, to each other that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race except with respect to Negroes?”