The Kennedy Administration

The John F. Kennedy Administration

John F. Kennedy’s presidency is known for his New Frontier policies, containment policy toward the Soviet Union, support for civil rights, and expansion of the space program.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the signature achievements of the Kennedy administration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address, he called for an active citizenry and the desire for greater internationalism.
  • Kennedy’s foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union, manifested by proxy wars in the early stage of the Cold War, and coming to the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis. 
  • As part of his desire for an active citizenry and greater internationalism, Kennedy asked Congress to create the Peace Corps, which brought American volunteers to work in underdeveloped nations.
  • Sources of immigration shifted under the Kennedy administration, from European countries toward Latin America and Asia, under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (passed after his death).
  • Kennedy was a supporter of African American civil rights, and also supported the rights of marginalized groups, such as women.
  • The U.S. space program and the development of NASA was a priority for Kennedy, who saw justification in the expense for reasons of international prestige and military value.

Key Terms

  • New Frontier: A phrase used by liberal Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy at the 1960 United States Democratic National Convention as the Democratic slogan to inspire America to support him; the phrase developed into a label for his administration’s domestic and foreign programs.
  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: A U.S. law that abolished the national origins quota system that had composed American immigration policy since the 1920s, replacing it with a preference system that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents.
  • containment: A United States policy using numerous strategies to prevent the spread of communism abroad.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States on January 20, 1961. In his inaugural address, he spoke of the need for all Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He called upon the nations of the world to join together and fight what he called the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” In closing, he expanded on his desire for greater internationalism: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.”

“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You”: In this short clip from his 1961 inaugural address, JFK delivers one of his most famous speeches.

The address reflected Kennedy’s confidence that his administration would chart a historically significant course in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. The contrast between this optimistic vision and the pressures of managing daily political realities at home and abroad would be one of the main tensions running through the early years of his administration. Despite the challenges he faced while in office, Kennedy consistently ranks high in public opinion ratings of U.S. presidents. He was assassinated before the end of his term on November 22, 1963.

Foreign Policy

Kennedy’s foreign policy was dominated by American confrontations with the Soviet Union, manifested by proxy wars in the early stage of the Cold War and coming to the brink of nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis. His administration was characterized by a policy of containment, and a new support for third world countries and their nationalist movements. Kennedy’s management style differed from his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, favoring an organizational structure of a wheel with all spokes leading to the president.

As one of his first presidential acts, Kennedy asked Congress to create the Peace Corps. Through this program, still in existence today, Americans volunteer to work in underdeveloped nations in areas such as education, farming, health care, and construction. The organization grew to 5,000 members by March of 1963 and 10,000 the following year. Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries.


Peace Corps: Kennedy greeting Peace Corps volunteers, 1961.

Domestic Policy

Kennedy called his domestic program the ” New Frontier.” It ambitiously promised federal funding for education, medical care for the elderly, economic aid to rural regions, and government intervention to halt the economic recession of the time. In his 1963 State of the Union address, he proposed substantial tax reform and a reduction in income tax rates. Congress passed few of Kennedy’s major programs during his lifetime, but it did vote them through in 1964-1965 under his successor Lyndon Johnson. During his time in office, Kennedy ended a period of tight fiscal policies, loosening monetary policy to keep interest rates down and encourage economic growth. The economy, which had been through two recessions in three years and was currently in a recession when Kennedy took office, turned around and prospered. Gross domestic product (GDP) expanded, inflation remained steady, unemployment eased, industrial production rose, and motor vehicle sales rose.

Civil Rights

President Kennedy initially proposed an overhaul of American immigration policy that later became the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It dramatically shifted the source of immigration from northern and western European countries, toward immigration from Latin America and Asia, and it also shifted the emphasized family reunification. Kennedy wanted to dismantle the selection of immigrants based on country of origin, and saw this as an extension of his civil rights policies.

Kennedy also made several motions to support African-American civil rights as well as the rights of other marginalized groups, such as women. During his time in office, he signed the executive order creating the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women on December 14, 1961. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt led the commission. On June 10, 1963, Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a federal law amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, and aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on sex.

The Space Program

Kennedy is also known for the expansion of the U.S. space program. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, which reinforced American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union. Kennedy wanted the U.S. to take the lead in the so-called “space race” for reasons of strategy and prestige.

On November 21, 1962, in a cabinet meeting with administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) James E. Webb, as well as other officials, Kennedy explained that exploring the moon was important for reasons of international prestige, and justified the expense of a program to facilitate this. Vice-President Johnson assured that lessons learned from the space program had military value as well, and so the space program under Kennedy began. Costs for the Apollo program were expected to reach $40 billion. On July 20, 1969, almost six years after Kennedy’s death, Apollo 11 landed the first manned spacecraft on the moon.


JFK Inaguration: John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961.

New Approaches to the Developing World

To counter Soviet influence in the developing world, Kennedy supported a variety of measures in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.

Learning Objectives

Summarize Kennedy’s foreign policy initiatives

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The foreign policies of the John F. Kennedy administration in 1961-1963 saw both diplomatic and military initiatives in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and other regions amid considerable Cold War tensions. 
  • Kennedy established the Agency for International Development to oversee the distribution of foreign aid; he also founded the Peace Corps, which recruited idealistic young people to undertake humanitarian projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
  • Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress aimed for economic cooperation between the U.S. and Latin America by providing substantial amounts of aid, along with stipulations, to Latin American countries. 
  • Kennedy’s foreign policy toward the Middle East focused on limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Israel, and a willingness to work with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Pan-Arab initiatives.
  • Kennedy’s policies toward Africa focused on tacit support for African nationalism, as well as coordination with the United Nations to ensure U.S. assistance in financing U.N. peacekeeping operation on the continent.

Key Terms

  • Gamal Abdel Nasser: The second president of Egypt from 1956 until his death; seen as one of the most important political figures in both modern Arab history and politics in the 20th century.
  • Alliance for Progress: A plan and program initiated by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that aimed to establish economic cooperation between the U.S. and Latin America.
  • African Nationalism: The political movement for the acknowledgment of peoples on the continent by instituting their own states, as well as the safeguarding of their indigenous customs.

Diversity in Foreign Policy

The foreign policies of the John F. Kennedy administration in 1961-1963 saw both diplomatic and military initiatives in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and other regions amid considerable Cold War tensions. To counter Soviet influence in the developing world (a policy known as containment), Kennedy supported a variety of measures in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. 

During his presidency, Kennedy established the Agency for International Development to oversee the distribution of foreign aid. He also founded the Peace Corps, which recruited idealistic young people to undertake humanitarian projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He hoped that by augmenting the food supply and improving healthcare and education, the U.S. government could encourage developing nations to align themselves with the United States and reject Soviet or Chinese overtures and the spread of communism. The first group of Peace Corps volunteers departed for the four corners of the globe in 1961, serving as an instrument of “soft power” in the Cold War.

Foreign Policy in Latin America: The Alliance for Progress

Kennedy’s most well known act regarding Latin America was the Alliance for Progress, which aimed to establish economic cooperation between the U.S. and Latin America. In March of 1961, Kennedy proposed a ten-year plan for Latin America, which called for an annual increase of 2.5% in per capita income; the establishment of democratic governments; the elimination of adult illiteracy by 1970; price stability to avoid inflation or deflation; more equitable income distribution; land reform; and economic and social planning.

Economic assistance to Latin America nearly tripled between fiscal years 1960 and 1961. Between 1962 and 1967, the U.S. supplied $1.4 billion per year to Latin America. However, Latin American countries still had to pay off their increasing debt to the U.S. and other first-world countries, limiting their financial independence.

The Alliance for Progress achieved a short-lived public relations success. It also had real but limited economic advances. However, by the early 1970s, the program was widely viewed as a failure. Like all economic development programs, it was rife with complications. It is often argued that the program failed for three reasons: 

  1. Not all Latin American nations were willing to enact the exact reforms that the U.S. demanded in exchange for their assistance. 
  2. Presidents after Kennedy were less supportive of the program. 
  3. The amount of money was not enough for an entire hemisphere; $20 billion averaged out to only $10 per person in Latin America.
A large billboard over the stage reads "Bienvenidos" and is bookended with portraits of John F. Kennedy and Rómulo Betancourt.

Alliance for Progress: Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt and U.S. President John F. Kennedy at La Morita, Venezuela, during an official meeting for the Alliance for Progress in 1961.

Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Kennedy firmly believed in the U.S. commitment to Israeli security, and he recognized the ambitious Pan-Arabic initiatives of Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the summer of 1960, the U.S. embassy in Tel-Aviv, Israel, learned that France was helping Israel construct “a significant atomic installation.” Although Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had publicly assured the United States that Israel did not plan to develop nuclear weapons, Kennedy tried to persuade Israel to permit some qualified expert to visit the site.

Kennedy wished to work more closely with the modernizing forces of the Arab world. In June of 1962, Nasser wrote Kennedy a letter, noting that though Egypt and the United States had their differences, they could still cooperate. Around this time, civil war broke out in North Yemen. Fearing it would lead to a larger conflict between Egypt and Saudi Arabia (which might involve the United States as an ally of Saudi Arabia), Kennedy decided to recognize the revolutionary regime, hoping it could stabilize the situation in Yemen. Kennedy continued to try to persuade Nasser to pull out his troops.

Foreign Policy in Africa

Kennedy’s approach to African affairs contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor. By naming young appointees, including scholars and liberal Democrats with government experience, to several embassies, Kennedy broke with Eisenhower’s pattern. Under Kennedy, a civil rights activist was tasked with management of the African affairs. According to Nigerian diplomat Samuel Ibe, “with Kennedy there were sparks.” The Prime Minister of Sudan, Ibrahim Abboud, cherishing a hunting rifle Kennedy gave him, expressed the wish to go on safari with Kennedy.


JFK and Africa: John and Jackie Kennedy, along with Côte d’Ivoire President Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his wife, at a state dinner in the White House, 1962.

The Kennedy administration believed that the British African colonies would soon achieve independence through what the Kennedy team termed middle-class revolution; they further believed the countries would grow to economic and political maturity. By the spring of 1962, American aid made its way to Guinea. On his return from Washington, the leader of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, reported to his people that he and Guinean delegation found in Kennedy “a man quite open to African problems and determined to promote the American contribution to their happy solution.” Touré also expressed his satisfaction about the “firmness with which the United States struggles against racial discrimination.”

Kennedy gave a speech at Saint Anselm College on May 5, 1960, regarding America’s conduct in the emerging Cold War. The address detailed how American foreign policy should be conducted toward African nations, noting a hint of support for modern African nationalism by saying that “For we, too, founded a new nation on revolt from colonial rule.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States that brought the world close to nuclear war.

Learning Objectives

Assess the significance of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis is regarded as the closest the U.S. and Soviet Union came to the release of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. 
  • U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union under the Kennedy administration favored containment —
    limiting the spread of communism in countries around the world.
  • Known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Kennedy ordered the invasion of U.S.-trained Cubans to overthrow the communist government run by Fidel Castro; the invasion ended disastrously for the U.S.
  • In October of 1962, U.S. spy planes took aerial photographs that confirmed the presence of long-range ballistic missile sites in Cuba, placing the United States within easy reach of Soviet nuclear warheads.
  • Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, and U.S. ships headed for Cuba, preparing for war; after 13 tense days, behind-the-scenes agreements were reached between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
  • The Soviets publicly agreed to remove missile bases from Cuba in exchange for U.S. agreement not to invade Cuba; secretly, the U.S. also agreed to remove its missiles deployed in Turkey and Italy.
  • As a result of the negotiations and overall danger of the crisis, the two countries created the Hotline Agreement, and signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting tests of nuclear weapons in Earth’s atmosphere.

Key Terms

  • Cuban Missile Crisis: A 13-day confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, and the United States on the other, in October 1962 during the Cold War; generally regarded as the moment when the Cold War came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict.
  • Hotline Agreement: A system that allows direct communication between the leaders of the United States and Russia, originally designed during the Cold War.
  • blockade: Any form of formal isolation of something, especially with the force of law or arms.

Background: The Cold War 

The spread of communism during the Kennedy administration represented a perceived threat to the power and dominance of the Western world. Thus, a leading premise during the Kennedy years was the need to contain communism at any cost. Kennedy felt that the spread of communism (what became known as the “hour of maximum danger”) required the policy of containment.

In his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, Kennedy presented the American public with a blueprint upon which the future foreign policy initiatives of his administration would later follow and come to represent. In this address, Kennedy warned “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He also called upon the public to assist in “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

Some of the most notable policies that stemmed from tenets of Kennedy’s initiatives to contain communism were the Kennedy Doctrine and Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and increased involvement in Vietnam. Amidst this backdrop, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in 1962.

Castro and the Bay of Pigs

In January of 1959, following the overthrow of the corrupt and dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista, Castro assumed leadership of the new Cuban government. The progressive reforms he began indicated that he favored communism, and his pro-Soviet foreign policy frightened the current Eisenhower administration in the U.S., which asked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to find a way to remove him from power. Rather than have the U.S. military invade the small island nation, less than one hundred miles from Florida, and risk the world’s criticism, the CIA instead trained a small force of Cuban exiles for the job. After landing at the Bay of Pigs on the Cuban coast, these insurgents, the CIA believed, would inspire their countrymen to rise up and topple Castro’s regime. The United States also promised air support for the invasion.

Kennedy agreed to support the previous administration’s plans, and on April 17, 1961, approximately 1,400 Cuban exiles stormed ashore at the designated spot. However, Kennedy feared domestic criticism and worried about Soviet retaliation elsewhere in the world, such as Berlin. He cancelled the anticipated air support, which enabled the Cuban army to easily defeat the insurgents. The hoped-for uprising of the Cuban people also failed to occur. The surviving members of the exile army were taken into custody. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a major foreign policy disaster for President Kennedy, and highlighted Cuba’s military vulnerability to the Castro administration. 

Crisis in Cuba

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side and the United States on the other. The crisis occurred in October of 1962, at the height of the Cold War.

Increasing Weapons

A year after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Soviet Union sent troops and technicians to Cuba to strengthen its new ally against further U.S. military plots. Then in August of 1962, the Cuban and Soviet governments secretly began to build bases in Cuba for a number of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles that would have the ability to strike most of the continental United States. This action followed the United States’ 1958 deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Italy and Turkey in 1961, which meant that more than 100 U.S.-built missiles had the capability to strike Moscow with nuclear warheads. On October 14, 1962, a United States Air Force U-2 plane on a photo-reconnaissance mission captured photographic proof of Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba.


Reconnaissance Photos: U-2 reconnaissance photograph of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Missile transports and tents for fueling and maintenance are visible in the photograph.

U.S. Response

The United States considered attacking Cuba via air and sea but decided on a military blockade instead, calling it a “quarantine” rather than a “blockade” for legal and other reasons. The U.S. announced it would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba, and demanded that the Soviets dismantle the missile bases already under construction or completed in Cuba, and remove all offensive weapons. The Kennedy administration held only a slim hope that the Soviet Union would agree to their demands and instead expected a military confrontation.


Containment of Cuba: Kennedy signs a proclamation that authorizes the naval containment of Cuba.

On the Brink of Nuclear War

The ensuing crisis is generally regarded as the moment when the Cold War came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict. It also marks the first documented instance of the threat of mutual assured destruction (MAD) being discussed as a determining factor in a major international arms agreement. As U.S. ships headed for Cuba, the army was told to prepare for war, and Kennedy appeared on national television to declare his intention to defend the Western Hemisphere from Soviet aggression.


Naval Blockade: A U.S. Navy plane flying over a Soviet cargo ship during the Cuban Crisis.

The world held its breath awaiting the Soviet reply. Realizing how serious the United States was, Khrushchev sought a peaceful solution to the crisis, overruling those in his government who urged a harder stance. Behind the scenes, Robert Kennedy and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin worked toward a compromise that would allow both superpowers to back down without either side’s seeming intimidated by the other. On October 26, Khrushchev agreed to remove the Russian missiles in exchange for Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba. On October 27, Kennedy’s agreement was made public, and the crisis ended. Not made public, but nevertheless part of the agreement, was Kennedy’s promise to remove U.S. warheads from Turkey and Italy, which were as close to Soviet targets as the Cuban missiles had been to American ones.

The showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union over Cuba’s missiles had put the world on the brink of a nuclear war. Both sides already had long-range bombers with nuclear weapons airborne or ready for launch and were only hours away from the first strike. As a result, a telephone “hot line” was installed, linking Washington D.C. and Moscow to avert future crises, and in 1963, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting tests of nuclear weapons in Earth’s atmosphere.

An additional outcome of this Kennedy-Khrushchev Pact that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis was that it effectively strengthened Castro’s position by guaranteeing that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. Furthermore, because the withdrawal of the missiles in Italy and Turkey was not made public at the time, Khrushchev appeared to have lost the conflict. 

A Growing War in Vietnam

The Vietnam War (1957-1975) was fought in South Vietnam and the bordering areas of Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam.

Learning Objectives

Interpret U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the context of the larger Cold War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the spread of communism to Laos prompted President Kennedy to expand his containment policy and strengthen U.S. credibility in limiting the spread of communism.
  • Following the declaration of Laos as neutral, Kennedy focused on Vietnam to repair U.S. credibility, and began aiding the South Vietnamese and their president, Ngo Dinh Diem.
  • Kennedy increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam between 1961 and 1963, funding the enlargement of the South Vietnamese army under the Military Assistance Command Vietnam and Foreign Assistance Act of 1962.
  • In 1963, in contact with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, South Vietnamese generals overthrew and executed President Diem, causing major instability in the south, and subsequent gains by the Viet Cong and communist insurgents.

Key Terms

  • Foreign Assistance Act of 1962: A United States Act of Congress that reorganized the structure of existing U.S. international aid programs, separated military from non-military aid, and created a new agency, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to administer those non-military, economic assistance programs.
  • Ngo Dinh Diem: The first president of South Vietnam (1955-1963).
  • Military Assistance Command Vietnam: The United States’ unified command structure for all of its forces in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Overview: The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War (1957-1975) was conducted in South Vietnam and the bordering areas of Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. American advisors came in the late 1950s to help the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in the South combat communist insurgents from the North under communist leader Ho Chi Minh, known as the Viet Cong. The U.S. framed the war as part of its policy of containment of communism in South Asia; however, the war was met with significant protests at home on American soil.

Background to the War

In South Vietnam, anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem had become prime minister in 1954, while Ho Chi Minh continued to rule the North. Realizing that Diem would never agree to the reunification of the country under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the North Vietnamese began efforts to overthrow the government of the South by encouraging insurgents to attack South Vietnamese officials. By 1960, North Vietnam had also created the National Liberation Front (NLF) to resist Diem and carry out an insurgency in the South. 

The United States, fearing the spread of Communism under Ho Chi Minh, supported Diem, assuming he would create a democratic, pro-Western government in South Vietnam. However, Diem’s oppressive and corrupt government made him a very unpopular ruler, particularly with farmers, students, and Buddhists, and many in the South actively assisted the NLF and North Vietnam in trying to overthrow his government.

Growing Involvement and the Policy of Containment

When Kennedy took office, Diem’s government was faltering. The Kennedy administration remained essentially committed to the Cold War foreign policy of containment practiced by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1961, Kennedy faced three events that made it appear as if the U.S. was bending to communism: the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and communist political movement in Laos, called Pathet Lao, which received Soviet support in 1961. Ultimately, Kennedy proposed a plan for a neutral Laos that the Soviet Union endorsed. After this agreement, Kennedy believed that another failure to gain control and stop communist expansion would fatally damage U.S. credibility with its allies and dominance as a world superpower.

In March of 1961, when Kennedy voiced a change in policy from supporting a “free” Laos to a “neutral” Laos, he implied Vietnam, not Laos, would be deemed America’s tripwire for communist spread in Southeast Asia. Kennedy was determined to “draw a line in the sand” and prevent a communist victory in Vietnam. In May of 1961, Kennedy dispatched Lyndon Johnson to meet with South Vietnam’s President Diem. Johnson assured Diem that the U.S. would provide more aid that could be used to develop a fighting force that could resist the communists. Kennedy announced a change of policy from support to partnership with Diem in order to defeat communism in South Vietnam.

Troops Under Kennedy

Continuing the policies of the Eisenhower administration, Kennedy supplied Diem with money and military advisors to prop up his government. In May of 1961, Kennedy sent 400 United States Army Special Forces personnel to South Vietnam to train South Vietnamese soldiers. By the end of 1961, the American advisers in Vietnam numbered 3,205. In February of 1962, Kennedy created The Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), and in August of 1962, Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1962, which provides “…military assistance to countries…on the rim of the Communist world and under direct attack.” By November of 1963, there were over 16,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, training members of that country’s special forces and flying air missions that dumped defoliant chemicals on the countryside to expose North Vietnamese and NLF forces and supply routes. 

Kennedy’s policy toward South Vietnam rested on the assumption that South Vietnamese leader Diem and his forces must ultimately defeat the North Vietnamese troops on their own. He was against the deployment of American combat troops and observed that “to introduce U.S. forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences.” The quality of the South Vietnamese military (ARVN), however, remained weak. 

Diem’s Assassination

A few weeks before Kennedy’s own death, Diem and his brother, Nhu, were assassinated by South Vietnamese military officers after U.S. officials had indicated their support for a new regime. After Diem’s assassination, South Vietnam entered a period of extreme political instability, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Increasingly, each new regime was viewed as a puppet of the Americans. The Viet Cong and communist insurgencies in South Vietnam took advantage of this instability and increased their strength. By this point, U.S. military advisers were embedded at every level of the South Vietnamese armed forces. General Paul Harkins, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, confidently predicted victory against the insurgents by Christmas of 1963. The CIA was less optimistic, however, warning that “the Viet Cong by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside, and have steadily increased the overall intensity of the effort.”


South Vietnam President: President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.

Kennedy’s Assassination

At the time of Kennedy’s death, no firm policy decision had been made regarding Vietnam. U.S. involvement in the region escalated until Lyndon Johnson deployed regular U.S. military forces for fighting the Vietnam War. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson passed a memorandum that reversed Kennedy’s decision to withdraw 1,000 troops, and instead reaffirmed the policy of assistance to the South Vietnamese. Major American military involvement began in 1964, when Congress provided President Johnson with blanket approval for presidential use of force in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.


South Vietnamese Troops: Operations against communist Viet Cong in Vietnam.

Kennedy’s Assassination

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in November of 1963 while traveling in a presidential motorcade in Dallas.

Learning Objectives

Examine the assassination of President Kennedy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In an act that shocked the nation, President Kennedy was fatally shot on November 22, 1963, while rallying supporters in Dallas, Texas. Within hours following the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested by Dallas police, and charged for the murder later that night.
  • The murder trial of Oswald never occurred, as he was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby while being transferred to the Dallas County Jail.
  • The Warren Commission, created by Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy as president, investigated the assassination and concluded that Oswald and Ruby had both acted alone in their separate murders.

Key Terms

  • Lee Harvey Oswald: The man accused of assassinating John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
  • Jack Ruby: A nightclub owner convicted of the November 24, 1963 murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
  • Warren Commission: Established on November 29, 1963, by Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. He was fatally shot while traveling with his wife Jacqueline, Texas Governor John Connally, and Governor Connally’s wife, Nellie, in a presidential motorcade.

Route to Dealey Plaza

Although his stance on civil rights had won him support in the African American community, and his steely performance during the Cuban Missile Crisis had led his overall popularity to surge, Kennedy understood that he had to solidify his base in the South to secure his reelection. On November 21, 1963, he accompanied Vice President Lyndon Johnson to Texas to rally his supporters. 

President Kennedy’s motorcade route through Dallas on November 22 was planned to give him maximal exposure to Dallas crowds before his arrival at a luncheon with civic and business leaders in the city. The actual route through Dallas was chosen to be a meandering ten miles, which could be driven slowly in the allotted time. The planned route was widely reported in Dallas newspapers several days before the event for the benefit of people who wished to view the motorcade.

At about 11:40am, the presidential motorcade left for the trip through Dallas. By the time the motorcade reached Dealey Plaza, Kennedy was only five minutes away from the planned destination. At 12:30 p.m., as Kennedy’s uncovered limousine entered Dealey Plaza, a reported three shots were fired at Kennedy. Seriously injured, Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Hospital; at 1:00 p.m., President Kennedy was pronounced dead.

Vice-President Johnson (who had been riding two cars behind Kennedy in the motorcade through Dallas and was not injured) became President of the United States upon Kennedy’s death. At 2:38 p.m., Johnson took the oath of office on board Air Force One just before it departed.

Lee Harvey Oswald

The gunfire that killed Kennedy appeared to come from the upper stories of the Texas School Book Depository building; later that day, Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee at the depository and a trained sniper, was arrested. He was charged later that night with the murders of President Kennedy and Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. Oswald denied shooting anyone, and claimed he was a being framed because he had lived in the Soviet Union. Oswald’s case never came to trial because he was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby two days later, while Oswald was being escorted to a car for transfer from Dallas Police Headquarters to the Dallas County Jail. Arrested immediately after the shooting, Ruby later said he had been distraught over the Kennedy assassination and sought to avenge the president’s death.

Kennedy’s Funeral

The news shocked the nation. Men and women wept openly. People gathered in department stores to watch the television coverage, while others prayed. Traffic in some areas came to a halt as the news spread from car to car. Schools across the U.S. dismissed their students early. The state funeral took place in Washington, D.C. during the three days that followed the assassination. The body of President Kennedy was brought back to Washington, D.C. and placed in the East Room of the White House for 24 hours. On the Sunday after the assassination, his coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to the U.S. Capitol to lie in state. Throughout the day and night, hundreds of thousands of people lined up to view the guarded casket. Representatives from over 90 countries attended the state funeral on Monday, November 25. After the Requiem Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the late president was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.


JFK’s Funeral: An honor guard folds the flag of the United States at Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for flag presentation to Jacqueline Kennedy on November 25, 1963.

Investigations and Conspiracies

President Johnson created the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination, which concluded that Oswald was the lone assassin. The ten-month investigation by the Warren Commission concluded that the President was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, and that Jack Ruby acted alone when he killed Oswald before he could stand trial. These conclusions were initially supported by the American public; however, polls conducted from 1966 to 2004 found that as many as 80% of Americans have suspected that there was a plot or cover-up. The assassination is still the subject of widespread debate, and has spawned numerous conspiracy theories and alternative scenarios.