John F. Kennedy

35th President of the United States (1961-1963)

At 43, Kennedy brought youth, energy and the promise of audacious possibilities to Washington. A World War II hero sworn in at the height of the Cold War, he was greeted with skepticism from Congress and the Pentagon based on his scant experience in foreign affairs and hair’s-width victory margin in his presidential contest with Richard Nixon. Determined to establish his credentials and presidential timbre, he approved the overthrow of the Communist regime of Cuban Premier Fidel Castro by CIA-backed Cuban exiles—with catastrophic results. He took full responsibility for the botched maneuver and the public rewarded him with an 83% approval rating, according to a Gallup poll. Other incidences sought to serve as an anathema during the beginning of the Kennedy administration: the Communist presence in U.S.-supported Laos and the Soviet Union beating the United States by sending a cosmonaut to space. Moreover, he avoided such domestic issues as the growing Civil Rights Movement—even as sit-ins and freedom rides were met with violence throughout the South. Kennedy would address the civil rights issue later in his term.

Highlights from his first 100 days:

• He signed an executive order to create the Peace Corps, enabling hundreds of Americans to volunteer in underdeveloped nations.
• Kennedy approved the Bay of Pigs invasion in which Cuban exiles, trained and financed by the CIA, attempt to oust Fidel Castro’s Communist government—a plan developed during the Eisenhower administration. He takes responsibility for the operation’s failure.
• Kennedy formed a task force from the departments of State and Defense, the CIA and the White House to review future US military involvement in Vietnam. Although he decides not to commit troops, Kennedy increases the number of military advisers.

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