President John Fitzgerald Kennedy would have turned 100 on May 29.
At the age of 43, he became the youngest man elected to ever assume the presidency on Jan. 20, 1961. Interestingly, he succeeded the oldest man to serve, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was 62 when he took the oath in 1953.
For many around the world, President Kennedy represented a new generation. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once wrote, “The capital city, somnolent in the Eisenhower years, had suddenly come alive with the release of energy which occurs when men with ideas have a chance to put them into practice.”
Kennedy was the first president to have been born in the 20th century as well as the first veteran of World War II to win the White House. Indeed, his heroic actions in saving the lives of fellow crew members after a Japanese destroyer destroyed Patrol Boat 109, proved helpful in his political career. Today, President Kennedy remains the only occupant of the White House to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize, awarded in 1957 for a short series of biographies, “Profiles in Courage.”
In his inaugural address, President Kennedy said: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” He concluded by saying, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
An extremely gifted orator, the speeches given by President Kennedy during his 1,000 days in office contained numerous phrases that seemed designed to one day be carved in stone. The timelessness of his words have addressed and comforted many since his death across the globe.
During his presidency, John F. Kennedy became a magnetic figure. Four months before his assassination in November 1963, 59 percent of Americans polled claimed that they had voted for him. However, in actuality, only 49 percent had done so. After that fateful day in Dallas, the number grew to 65 percent. As is often the case with our American heroes and she-roes, he became more popular in death then in life.
The accomplishments of President Kennedy’s short presidency include the following:
• Peace Corps: Established in March 1961, this program enables American volunteers to help in developing nations in areas such as farming, education, health care and construction. Since its formation, approximately 220,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps and served in 140 countries.
• Averted a nuclear war: As a result of the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba by the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis lasted for 13 days in October 1962. It was the closest the U.S. had ever come to a full-scale nuclear war. The crisis ended with the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle its weapons, in exchange for the U.S. agreeing not to invade Cuba without provocation. The U.S. also agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey, without admitting so publicly.
• Civil Rights Act of 1964: In June 1963, President Kennedy, under great pressure from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, gave an address calling on all Americans to view civil rights as a moral cause. His proposal to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities, as well as greater protection of voting rights, became key components of the Civil Rights Act passed in June 1964. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, shrewdly used the period of national mourning after the assassination to push through this bill as a tribute to the late president.
In remarks for delivery at the Dallas Trade Mart, President Kennedy planned to end with these words: “We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by 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 achieve in our time and all time, the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth and good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal and underlie our strength.”
Although unspoken, these words are resurrected in commemoration of his 100th birthday, and in remembrance of him as a characteristic leader whose impact in life extends through his tragic death, by continuing to serve as a symbol of purpose and hope for millions. Happy birthday, Mr. President!
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.