Salve Regina University historian reflects on President John F. Kennedy, who had many ties to Newport and was assassinated 60 years ago
This Wednesday, November 22, marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We’d like you to assess his political legacy, but first, let’s learn about his history in Newport.
On September 12, 1953, he married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.
What do we know about the ceremony? And the reception, which was held at Hammersmith Farm, the oceanfront estate of her stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss?
The Kennedys were married at St. Mary’s, one of Rhode Island’s oldest Catholic churches. The archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, officiated, and several other clergymen were in attendance, including the bishop of Springfield and the former president of Notre Dame. Seven hundred guests packed the church, including the Speaker of the House and twenty other senators and representatives. Twelve hundred people attended the reception at Hammersmith Farm, the home of Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss.
For Newport, which had fallen on hard times, the Kennedy wedding and reception provided a real boost. The Newport Mercury described the nuptials as “Newport’s most brilliant wedding in many years.”
After Kennedy assumed office in January 1961, did he and Jacqueline spend time at Hammersmith Farm?
Hammersmith Farm served as the Kennedys’ unofficial Summer White House; they visited it in 1961, 1962 and 1963. Salve Regina alumnae from the early 1960s recall seeing President Kennedy in Newport from time to time. Some would wait outside their dorms on Bellevue Avenue, hoping to see him as he drove into town from Ocean Drive. If he saw the students, he would stop his convertible, get out and shake their hands. Other alumnae recall seeing the Kennedys at Sunday Masses at St. Mary’s.
Like many residents of Newport then (and now), Kennedy was of Irish Catholic ancestry. What did him becoming the first Catholic president mean to Catholics in Newport and elsewhere? Was there any bigotry directed at Kennedy?
The Kennedy victory provided a clear signal to all Americans that Catholics had finally entered the nation’s mainstream. When Al Smith ran for president in 1928, he lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover and most historians agree that his Irish Catholic background hurt him considerably at the polls. Kennedy didn’t face anywhere near the level of opposition that Smith encountered. Still, some Protestant ministers worried that Kennedy would be a mouthpiece for the Vatican. To assuage them, he appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association shortly before the election and assured them that he supported the “absolute separation of church and state” and opposed any governmental aid to Catholic schools.
OK, now the political legacy. Born in Brookline, Mass., Kennedy was a son of Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy. Both of his parents had deep political roots – Rose as the daughter of a Boston mayor and Joseph as an ambassador. Tell us about this.
John Kennedy’s maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald served as Mayor of Boston and as a congressman. Famed for his charm and for his impressive singing voice, Fitzgerald was a popular figure in Boston. Kennedy’s paternal grandfather, P.J. Kennedy, was a saloon owner who was also influential in Boston’s Democratic party.
Kennedy’s father, Joseph, was an ally of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt was elected president, he appointed Kennedy as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and in 1938 selected him as the Ambassador to the United Kingdom. At one point seen as a possible presidential candidate, Kennedy hurt his standing with FDR and the American people by supporting Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler and the Nazis. Recalled to America, Kennedy shifted his energies to getting one of his sons elected as president.
The future president graduated from Choate and then from Harvard, after which he joined the Navy. Tell us a bit about his Navy service, including as commander of a patrol torpedo boat, PT-109.
After graduating from Harvard in 1940, Kennedy tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected for health reasons. Kennedy’s father then intervened to get his son accepted into the Navy. In 1942 Jack completed his training in Melville, Rhode Island, and was given the rank of lieutenant junior grade. He was then sent to the Pacific and put in command of a small patrol torpedo boat, PT-109. In August 1943, a Japanese destroyer rammed Kennedy’s boat, splitting it in half. Kennedy, seeing that one of his crewmembers was badly injured, swam with him to a nearby island. Miraculously, Kennedy and ten of his crew survived for a week before being rescued by another PT boat. After returning to the United States, Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and Purple Heart for his heroism.
Back from the war, Kennedy was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and then, in 1952, to the U.S. Senate. Can you give us an overview of his years in Congress?
In 1946, Kennedy, a 29-year-old decorated war veteran, ran for an open congressional seat. With his father’s backing, Kennedy easily defeated his Democratic rivals in the primary and his Republican opponent in the general election. In the House, Kennedy was known for his hawkish positions on foreign policy but was not associated with any particular legislative acts. After three terms in the House, Kennedy decided to run for the Senate, challenging the Republican incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. This was a family rematch of sorts. In 1916 Kennedy’s grandfather “Honey Fitz” had tried and failed to unseat Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. from his Senate seat. Thirty-six years later, Kennedy had better luck and narrowly beat out the younger Lodge.
He also brought the U.S. into the Space Race, confronted the specter of nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, advanced the notion of a “New Frontier,” proposed a Civil Rights bill and more. Many books have been written about all this, but can you give us an overview?
In 1960, Kennedy would again face Lodge, this time in the presidential race. Kennedy and his running mate, Lyndon Johnson, eked out a win over the sitting Vice President, Richard Nixon, and his running mate, Lodge. In January 1961, the 43-year-old Kennedy delivered a stirring inaugural, promising that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden…to assure the survival and success of liberty.” He soon ran into difficulties, however. In April he authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion in an effort to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Kennedy’s mishandling of the operation convinced Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the youthful president would not be a serious adversary. In August Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall without notifying Kennedy beforehand. The following year Khrushchev ordered the installation of nuclear warheads in Cuba. The ensuing missile crisis proved to be the greatest challenge to Kennedy’s presidency. Pressured by military advisors to launch air strikes, Kennedy instead responded more cautiously, imposing a naval blockade on the island. After a two-week standoff, Khrushchev agreed to pull the missiles from Cuba while Kennedy promised to remove American missiles from Turkey.
Recognizing how close the world had come to another catastrophic conflict, Kennedy pushed hard for peaceful coexistence with the Soviets. In June 1963, he delivered the commencement address at American University and called for world peace. He assured his listeners that America would do its “part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on—not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.”
Wednesday is the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. He was less than three years into his presidency. A nation and indeed the world were shocked. As we mark this anniversary how do you hope people will reflect back on JFK?
On this anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, some might want to reflect on his establishment of the Peace Corps which has sent volunteers to 140 countries. Others might point to his support for the space program and his desire to put a man on the moon. I’d be most inclined to call to mind his wise and prudent statesmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In our current fractured and war-torn world, we need leaders who will fight hard for peace.