In the wake of the Second World War, during the most perilous days of the Cold War, and amid the rising dangers of the nuclear age, John F. Kennedy lifted the spirits of people around the globe with his courage, his confidence, and the sheer power of his personal magnetism. He gave voice to the nation’s noblest aspirations. His words gave strength to those suffering from oppression, hunger, and despair. And his vision electrified a generation, as untold numbers of citizens answered the call to service that he issued with the words, “Ask not.” The items presented here provide glimpses of the man, humanizing an elusive historical figure, while bringing his timeless message of hope to a world that still yearns to hear it.
Portrait from John F. Kennedy’s first formal photo session, ca. November 1917 (ca. November 1917) by Photograph by Alfred Brown Studio and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Portrait from John F. Kennedy’s first formal photo session, ca. November 1917. Photograph by Alfred Brown Studio, Brookline, Massachusetts
John –“Jack,” as he was called by his family and close friends—was the second of nine children born into a close-knit, politically-connected Irish Catholic family in Brookline. He had three brothers and five sisters, one of whom was born with an intellectual disability. Politics was in JFK’s blood. Both of his grandfathers—sons of immigrant who came to the United States from Ireland to escape the potato famine in the 1840s—held elective office.
JFK’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy was the daughter of John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who served as a U.S. Congressman, and mayor of Boston. His father, Joseph P. Kennedy, an enormously successful businessman, would come to hold high government posts, including Ambassador to Great Britain. Both parents instilled in their children strong values of faith, family and public service, as well as a thirst for learning and a drive to succeed, making full use of their God-given talents.
Health records of the Kennedy children, maintained by their mother by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Health records of the Kennedy children, maintained by their mother
The mother of nine, Rose Kennedy devised a card file system to track her children’s health; she bought this cedar box in Brookline to house the records. On this card for Jack she listed whooping cough, measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever, mumps, German measles and bronchitis.
On subsequent cards she chronicled an appendectomy, tonsillectomy, and the constant struggle to keep up his weight. While Jack grew up with every material advantage, he suffered from a series of medical ailments that mystified his doctors and would continue to plague him as an adult. He learned to underplay the effects of his illnesses and, later, to hide the physical suffering he would endure throughout his lifetime.
"Plant a Tree," crayon drawing by John F. Kennedy (ca. 1929--1930) by John F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
"Plant a Tree," crayon drawing by John F. Kennedy, ca. 1929-1930
JFK poses with members of the “Muckers Club” at Choate, c. 1934 (ca. 1934) by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
JFK poses with members of the “Muckers Club” at Choate, c. 1934. Left to right: Ralph Horton, Lem Billings, Butch Schriber, and John F. Kennedy
Jack attended Choate, a boarding school in Connecticut, from 1931 to 1935. His academic performance was uneven, as he applied himself only to the subjects he enjoyed. He was a disorganized student, a mischievous prankster, and was often in trouble with his teachers, parents, and school headmaster. Yet he distinguished himself with his keen intellect and winning personality.
There are several references in a scrapbook he compiled to the “Muckers,” a secret club that Jack organized with a small group of his most mischievous classmates. The headmaster’s term for troublemakers was “muckers,” which the group adopted and wore as a badge of honor.
One of the Muckers’ schemes, thwarted by the school headmaster before it could be executed, was a plan to move a pile of horse manure into the school gym; the idea nearly got the group expelled.
John F. Kennedy’s United States Navy Identification Card by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
John F. Kennedy’s United States Navy Identification Card
JFK’s service in the Navy during World War II was a formative experience in his life. He actively sought combat duty and served in the Pacific Theater as commander of patrol torpedo (PT) boats 109 and 59. He emerged from his military service a decorated combat hero.
U.S. Flag from PT 109, replaced July 1943, the month before the boat was sunk by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
U.S. Flag from PT 109, replaced July 1943, the month before the boat was sunk
In the early morning hours of August 2, 1943, PT 109 was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. JFK instantly lost two of his crew and led the survivors through a harrowing ordeal that ended six days later with their rescue. He emerged from the experience with a battle-tested view of war that would come to shape his perspective as Commander-in-Chief. This wind-tattered flag was replaced by a new one shortly before PT 109 was sunk; it is one of the few physical remnants from the boat that still exists.
John F. Kennedy’s suitcase used during the 1960 Presidential primaries and election by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
JFK’s suitcase used during the 1960 Presidential primaries and election
JFK prepared for a Presidential run long before he made his formal announcement of candidacy. He traveled throughout the United States, acquainting himself with the voters and local Democratic Party leaders in every region. Among the challenges he faced as a candidate was an entrenched bias against Catholics and a perception that, at age 42, he was too young and inexperienced for the nation’s highest office.
When he did make a formal announcement on January 2, 1960, he asserted his qualifications, citing his travels across the country, his 18 years of public service—in the military during World War II and in the Congress—and his international travels. From these experiences, he said, “I have developed an image of America as fulfilling a noble and historic role as the defender of freedom in a time of maximum peril—and of the American people as confident, courageous and persevering. It is with this image that I begin this campaign.”
President Kennedy’s notes from his first full day as President, January 21, 1961 (January 21, 1961) by John F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
President Kennedy’s notes from his first full day as President, January 21, 1961
These notes reveal that one of the first orders of business was to plan a meeting with the nation’s legislative leaders. Evelyn Lincoln, the President’s secretary, annotated the President’s notes at the top of the page. The notes at the bottom of the page were made by Kenneth O’Donnell, the President’s White House appointment secretary.
Department of Defense Briefing Board No. 13, showing the range of nuclear missiles launched from Cuba (February 6, 1963) by Department of DefenseJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Department of Defense Briefing Board No. 13, showing the range of nuclear missiles launched from Cuba, February 6, 1963
In the fall of 1962, the Soviet Union, under orders from Premier Khrushchev, began to secretly deploy a nuclear strike force in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States, with missiles that could reach many major U.S. cities in less than five minutes. President Kennedy viewed the construction of these missile sites as intolerable, and insisted on their removal. Khrushchev refused—initially. The ensuing standoff nearly caused a nuclear exchange and is remembered in the United States as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On October 28, 1962, as the world’s mightiest military forces stood poised for warfare, Khrushchev relented. In secret negotiations Kennedy had offered the Soviet premier a way out. The missile sites, Khrushchev announced, would be dismantled immediately. The peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of President Kennedy’s greatest diplomatic achievements.
Three months after the crisis was resolved, the Department of Defense conducted a televised press briefing chronicling the Soviet Union’s build-up and subsequent removal of nuclear weapons from Cuba. This board was used during that briefing to illustrate the gravity of the threat—nearly the entire United States was within range of the missiles.
Cold War garden gnomes portraying President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Cold War garden gnomes portraying President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev
A set of six garden gnomes—each one a caricature of a Cold War leader—was a gift to President Kennedy from a citizen of West Germany. In addition to the two figures shown here, the set included statues representing West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Vice Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Mayor of West Berlin Willy Brandt, and French President Charles de Gaulle.
The Khrushchev figure wears only one shoe, a humorous reference to the 1960 incident at the United Nations General Assembly, when the Soviet Premier reacted in anger to a speech by removing one of his shoes and brandishing it in the air while addressing the international body.
President Kennedy’s Cabinet Room armchair by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
President Kennedy’s Cabinet Room armchair
The room where the President meets with his cabinet secretaries and advisors is near the Oval Office. By tradition, the President’s chair, positioned at the center of the table, is two inches taller than those of the cabinet secretaries.
Draft for remarks upon receiving an honorary degree at Amherst College, page 3 (October 26, 1963) by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Speech draft for remarks upon receiving an honorary degree at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, October 26, 1963
JFK invited more than 50 writers, painters, poets and musicians to his inauguration—and also invited poet Robert Frost to take part in the inaugural ceremony itself—signaling, from the earliest moments of his administration, that the arts would hold a prominent place in the new government. White House events, designed and meticulously planned by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, became a showcase for excellence in American music, dance, theater, and literature during the Kennedy administration.
On October 26, 1963, nearly three years after Robert Frost rang in the Kennedy Presidency with the recital of a poem, the President spoke at the groundbreaking for the Library at Amherst College named for Robert Frost. Earlier that day, Amherst presented the President with an honorary degree. In a speech accepting that honor, JFK championed the role of the artist in American life, articulating the principles behind the arts initiatives he and Jacqueline Kennedy were promoting. The initials of Arthur Schlesinger, Special Assistant to the President, are at the top of page one of this draft. President Kennedy’s handwritten notes and edits are transcribed below each page.
When power corrupts—poetry cleanses
JFK’s sunglasses, cuff links, tie clip and necktie, one of 8 from JFK’s personal wardrobe selected for the exhibition by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Sunglasses, cuff links, tie, tie clasp
In addition to preserving the materials that make up the official record of JFK’s Presidency, the Kennedy Library also preserves many of his personal and family belongings. Among those are sunglasses, cuff links, ties, and tie clasps. The word “Think” is the design motif of the tie shown here.
Two chestnuts found on White House grounds by Caroline and John Jr. and given to their father by John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Two chestnuts found on White House grounds by Caroline and John Jr. and given to their father.
Undelivered remarks prepared for the Dallas Trade Mart, November 22, 1963, first of 37 speech cards (November 22, 1963) by John F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and MuseumJohn F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Undelivered remarks prepared for Trade Mart in Dallas, November 22, 1963
President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 while riding in an open car, with his wife by his side, during a political trip to Texas. The President’s motorcade had been headed to the Dallas Trade Mart where he was to deliver these remarks to a crowd of more than 2,000 people—members of the Dallas business community and other local leaders. JFK came to the Presidency with the promise of increasing America’s strength in a perilous world.
In this undelivered address prefacing his 1964 campaign for re-election, he recapped the advances the nation had made during his time in office.
"We in this country, in this generation, are—by destiny rather than choice—the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility—that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint—and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal—and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”--From President John F. Kennedy’s undelivered remarks prepared for Trade Mart in Dallas, November 22, 1963