John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born May 29, 1917 in a suburb of Massachusetts to one of America’s wealthiest families. His parents were the businessman-turned-politician Joseph “Joe” Kennedy and philanthropist and socialite Rose; the son and daughter of Irish immigrants. When John was born, Joe and Rose already had one son (Joe Jr.) but would go on to have 7 more children: Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert (Bobby), Jean, and Ted.
JFK made history when he became the youngest person to be sworn in as President of the United States, aged just 43. His time in office was cut tragically short by his assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Widely considered as one of the most charismatic US presidents ever, Kennedy was a truly gifted speaker and writer. His words – especially his speeches – have endured and are still quoted by many politicians, writers, historians, and journalists today. 55 years on from his assassination, we’re taking the opportunity to share some of JFK’s very best quotes.
Keep reading for insights into John F. Kennedy’s life and work, told in his own words.
John F. Kennedy spent the first ten years of his life in Brookline, Massachusetts. He attended many schools, and his father was often away from the family for long periods of time. In September 1927, the Kennedy’s moved to Riverdale, Bronx, New York, where John began school at a private school for boys. When the family moved out the suburbs a couple of years later, they attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and JFK joined a local boy scout troop.
From 1931, the future president would attend the prestigious Choate boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. His older brother Joe Jr. had already been there for two years, and John struggled with attending school in his brother’s shadow. He compensated with rebellious behavior, creating his own group of boys called “The Muckers Club.” His years at Choate were plagued with health problems, which foreshadowed the struggle he would face for the rest of his life. JFK was hospitalized in 1934 with suspected leukaemia, but doctors at the Mayo Clinic ultimately concluded that he had colitis. He graduated in June of the following year, finishing 64th in a class of 112 students. The business manager of the school yearbook, JFK was voted the “most likely to succeed.”
“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.”
“A child miseducated is a child lost.”
Health problems continued to plague JFK when it was time to go to college. Though he hoped to attend the London School of Economics (LSE) like his older brother, ill health meant that a late enrolment at Princeton was a better option. However, a persistent gastrointestinal illness meant that he had to drop out after just two months. After a period of convalescence, JFK enrolled at Harvard in September 1936. His application letter said:
He thrived at Harvard, trying out for the football, golf, and swimming teams, before ultimately earning a spot on the varsity swim team. After a couple of years of having a good time, John began to take his studies more seriously. He toured Europe, the Soviet Union, the Balkans, and the Middle East in preparation for his senior thesis, and made the Dean’s List in his junior year. JFK ultimately graduated cum laude from Harvard College with a Bachelor of Arts in government, concentrating on international affairs in 1940. However, the importance he placed on the value of education comes through in many of his speeches.
“Leadership and learning are indispensible to one another.”
“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”
John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in January 1960. Some questioned his youth and experience, but his charm and eloquence won him many supporters within his own party and among the people. During the long campaign period, JFK proved himself to be a strong and charismatic personality and an incredible speaker. Accepting the nomination from the Democratic party, he delivered his now-famous “New Frontier” speech, which offered insight into what was to come:
“Life is never easy. There is work to be done and obligations to be met – obligations to truth, to justice, and to liberty.”
JFK’s inaugural address was a reflection of what was to come. He wanted to use his time in the White House to chart a different course from those who had come before him. In both domestic and foreign policy Kennedy adopted an optimistic vision, and he wasted no time in implementing his own style of leadership. He quickly scrapped former-General Eisenhower’s decision-making structure, preferring instead to run his White House as a wheel. Each spoke of the wheel led to the President himself, and JFK proved that he was ready and willing to make a large number of quick decisions that were required of him. For his cabinet, Kennedy chose a mix of experienced and inexperienced people (including his brother Bobby) and said they could “all learn our jobs together.”
“I would rather be accused of breaking precedents than breaking promises.”
“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.”
Kennedy’s time in office was short, but there is no doubt that he faced many uphill battles. He called his domestic program the “New Frontier” and made many ambitious promises. These included federal funding for education, medical care for the elderly, economic aid to rural regions, and government intervention to halt the recession.
One of the most important features of his presidency was his support and campaign of the Civil Rights Movement. JFK had had contact with the King family since his presidential campaign, and he would go on to actively intervene when Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama to stop two African American students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from attending on June 11, 1963. Wallace moved aside only after being confronted by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and the Alabama U.S. National Guard, which had just been federalized by order of the president. That evening Kennedy gave his Report to the American People on Civil Rights on TV and radio, launching his initiative for civil rights legislation—to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities, and greater protection of voting rights.
“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
“If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity.”
“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”
Outside of the USA, JFK’s foreign policy was was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union and the early stages of the Cold War. He started off on the wrong foot by reacting aggressively to a routine Khrushchev speech on Cold War confrontation in early 1961. The speech was intended for domestic audiences in the Soviet Union, but Kennedy interpreted it as a personal challenge. Nikita Khrushchev thought Kennedy weak, and the issue of the Berlin Wall also led those in West Berlin to lose confidence in the United States.
Beyond Europe, the Kennedy White House also had to deal with the fallout of a plan enacted by Eisenhower to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. Led by the CIA and with help from the military, the plan was for an invasion of Cuba by a counter-revolutionary insurgency composed of US-trained, anti-Castro Cuban exiles led by CIA paramilitary officers. The intention was to invade Cuba and instigate an uprising among the Cuban people, resulting in Castro’s removal from power. Kennedy approved the final invasion plan on April 4, 1961. What resulted is now known as the Bay of Pigs. When the troops invaded, no air support was offered. Many of the invading exiles were killed or captured, and Kennedy was forced to negotiate for the release of the 1,189 survivors. He took full responsibility for the failure, saying: “We got a big kick in the leg and we deserved it. But maybe we’ll learn something from it.”
Cuba remained the focus of Foreign Policy for JFK with the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962.
“Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
On Success and Growth
“If not us, who? If not now, when?”
Despite the failures of certain aspects of JFK’s foreign policy, he also had some incredible successes – and he faced both with equal gusto and optimism. The uneasy relationship between Kennedy and Khrushchev spilled over into the Space Race, a competition between the USA and U.S.S.R for dominance in spaceflight capability. When the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space in spring 1961, JFK did a 360 degree turn in his thinking about NASA and America’s role in space exploration. Though he had been poised to shut down the space program, the success of the Soviets U.S. made Kennedy adamant that the USA should take the lead in the Space Race, for reasons of national security and prestige. The importance of space exploration and the Apollo program led JFK to give one of his most memorable speeches:
“We choose to go 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.”
“For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”
Though the social and political landscape of John F. Kennedy’s presidency were turbulent, one of the enduring traits of his White House is his family. Glamorous, vibrant, youthful, and open, the Kennedy’s were popular in the media in a way that had not been seen before. His wife Jackie, in particular, became a symbol of fashion, beauty, and culture. Her work renovating the White House and restoring its collection of furniture, artworks, and other important American historical artifacts culminated in an unprecedented TV documentary featuring the First Lady herself. When the Kennedy’s lost a baby son just days after his birth, the nation mourned. Equally, it responded with great joy to images of the young First Children – Caroline and John Jr. – enjoying their childhood in the most famous house in the USA.
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past are certain to miss the future.”
Though history has shown that everything wasn’t as perfect as it seemed on the surface – there were affairs, extensive episodes of ill-health and misguided medications, as well as other family scandals – the Kennedy White House remains a Golden Age in terms of the popular image of the presidency. After John’s death, Jackie referred to the Kennedy administration as the “Camelot” era, so named for JFK’s affection for the Broadway musical of that name. It has come to be associated with the charisma and optimism of the president and his family.
“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot. There’ll be great presidents again … but there will never be another Camelot.”
“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12.30pm CST on Friday, November 22, 1963. John and Jackie were on a political trip in an attempt to smooth over frictions in the Democratic Party when, travelling in a presidential motorcade through downtown Dallas, JFK was shot twice: once in the back, and once in the head. Kennedy was taken to Parkland Hospital for emergency medical treatment, and was pronounced dead 30 minutes later. Lee Harvey Oswald, an order filler at the Texas School Book Depository from which the shots were suspected to have been fired, was arrested for the murder of police officer J.D. Tippit, and subsequently charged with Kennedy’s assassination. He denied shooting anyone and was killed by Jack Ruby on November 24, before he could be prosecuted. Kennedy’s state funeral – modelled on that of Abraham Lincoln – took place on November 25, 1963. Kennedy was interred in Arlington National Cemetery, beside his grave is an Eternal Flame.
Many of Kennedy’s speeches (especially his inaugural address) are considered iconic; and despite his relatively short term in office, and a lack of any major legislative changes during his term, Americans regularly vote him as one of the best presidents alongside Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, his work laid the foundations for many important laws and events that followed, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the successful Apollo mission that put man on the moon (1969).
“Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.”
“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
“As we express our gratitude we must never forget that the highest form of appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
Is your favorite quote from John F. Kennedy missing from this post? Share it with us in the comments.