The Best Books to Read on the Presidency of John F. Kennedy

JFK Office

With the exception of Lincoln and Washington, more pages have been written about John F. Kennedy than any other president. Kennedy was the 35th president, and perhaps the most charismatic political leaders in modern history. In addition to biographies, authors have zoomed in on almost everything about Kennedy, from his famed Anglophilia to his influence on the Vietnam war.

For those who are looking to quench their thirst for knowledge on this remarkable former president of the United States, here are the top 5 books on John F. Kenney.

1.     An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek’s book “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 – 1963” rewrites the story of John F. Kennedy. In this book, you learn more about Kennedy’s love affairs, ill health, and family dynamics than you’ve ever learned elsewhere. Most historians and critics consider this book, which was published in 2003, to be an essential Kennedy biography.

2.     Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

Published in 1955, Profiles in Courage is a book by John F. Kennedy himself. It was written when he was recovering from surgery after one of his many illnesses. The book profiled 8 senators in U.S. history who had courageously taken the unpopular stand against issues that threatened democracy. Some of those named are John Quincy Adams (known for his political independence, patriotism, and brilliant mind), and Robert A. Taft. This book, which was co-authored with Ted Sorensen, won a Pulitzer Prize.

3.     A Thousand Days by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

“A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House” is a book that looks at Kennedy the president from the point of view of his friends. Released in 1965, this book speaks volumes about John Kennedy. It provides an insightful analysis of his political career, right from the campaigns all the way to his funeral. Although it’s been critiqued as a friendlier biography (the author had relations with the subject), it provides valuable knowledge on how Kennedy would have wanted to be seen.

4.     The Death of a President by William Manchester

William Manchester’s book “The Death of a President: November 20 – November 25, 1963” is an account of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Manchester reportedly started working on this book at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy. But when the book was done, Jackie Kennedy and her brother in law, Robert F. Kennedy were not happy with the work and requested further changes. Although a bestseller back then, the book later faded into obscurity, before it became popular again with its 50th-anniversary edition. It’s still an important text for anyone who’s looking to learn more about Kennedy.

5.     Case Closed by Gerald Posner

The assassination of J. F. Kennedy has attracted more conspiracy theories than any other political tragedy in our times. With his book “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK”, Gerald Posner aims to dig deeper and unearth facts that are otherwise easy to miss. He examines all available evidence and arrives at only one reasonable conclusion – Lee Oswald (the gunman who shot Kennedy) acted alone.

If you still have some spare time after reading these books, others that you should look at are:

  • Nigel Hamilton’s JFK: Reckless Youth
  • Richard Reeves’ President Kennedy: Profile of Power
  • Herbert Parmet’s Jack: The Struggles of John F Kennedy
  • Michael O’Brien’s John F. Kennedy: A Biography
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Kennedy Picture

35th President of the United States

John Fitzgerald Kennedy giving the Inaugural Address, as the 35th president of the United States, in Washington, DC on 20th January 1961. He had earlier gained the Democratic Party nomination for President. Kennedy won by a small margin in the November 1960 elections, becoming the youngest man and first-ever Roman Catholic to become president of the country.

Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States. Washington, DC 20 January 1961. Please credit “U. S. Army Signal Corps photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston”.

Meeting with Martin Luther King, Civil Rights

Kennedy supported civil rights. But it was only after his death that meaningful legislation on the same was passed. In this file photo, he meets with prominent civil rights activist, including the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr.

August 1963, White House, Washington, D.C., USA — Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., meet with President John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office about the March on Washington. — Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy personally telling the American people that soviet missile stations in Cuba were being ‘destroyed’. He said the country’s aerial surveillance team would continue till effective international inspections had been arranged.

Announcing Space Effort

On September 12, 1962. President Kennedy delivers a speech at Rice University. He detailed the nation’s objective to land a man on the moon within the decade. The president announced that he would continue supporting increased space expenditure. NASA eventually landed a man on the moon in 1969.

KN-C23643 12SEP1962 President John F. Kennedy Address at Rice University in Houston on the Nation’s Space Effort. Please credit “Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

Assassination Day

Kennedy was riding in a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible codenamed X-100. Following the shooting, the presidential limousine was examined for evidence of the Dallas shooting, overhauled, then cleaned and recommissioned for service in mid-1964. The limo continued to carry presidents till 1977. It’s currently on display in Dearborn, Michigan, at the Henry Ford Museum.

President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, riding in the Lincoln Continental moments before the assassination.

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Or was he? Depends on who you ask. Generally, though, John F. Kennedy is popularly known as one of the most charismatic presidents ever. He embodied hope, energy and promise, especially at a time when the country needed those qualities. When the name ‘John Kennedy’ fills the room, most people will think of his assassination and the major accomplishments that he made. But few people dig through the web of compliments to identify some of his greatest flows. The merits are clear, yes, but his demerits are just as outstanding. Based on information collected from various historical sources and news publishing websites, here are some of the reasons why John Kennedy probably wasn’t one of the greatest presidents this country has ever seen.

He Caused the Cuban Missile Crisis

Different historians have different opinions regarding what happened in October 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis almost resulted in a nuclear exchange. Basic interpretational however suggests that had the Eastern Seaboard been wiped out that year, it’d have been due to Kennedy’s fecklessness. It appears that the Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba as an attempt to stir another American invasion of the country. A year earlier, Kennedy had invited Cuba. But instead of seeing this the way it really was, Kennedy fumbled and mis-reacted before finally agreeing to a deal that included promising not to attack Cuba again. Kennedy simply took many actions that increased risk of war.

He Caused the Bay of Pigs Invasion

This is probably intertwined with the Cuban missile crisis. Essentially, it triggered the crisis that almost culminated in nuclear war. The Bay of Pigs Invasion led to hundreds and thousands of injuries and damaged the reputation of America worldwide. It also solidified Cuba’s firm stand as a communist state, which is only loosening nowadays following major efforts made by the Obama administration. Although this particular escalation happened when Kennedy was still very new in the oval office, it was his fault. Despite having multiple opportunities to reverse course, Kennedy went through with the plans.

He Escalated Vietnam

Many post-war revisionists have said that Kennedy somehow failed to save the nation from an escalation in Vietnam. Although there’s little material evidence on this, it seems to hold some water. His lifetime comments during the war failed to account for a North Vietnamese escalation. In 1964, his brother, Robert Kennedy, said that the president never even considered withdrawing. It’s a complicated debate, but the general line of thinking here is that it could have been done better.

He Was a Little Slow on Civil Rights

Make no mistake, John F. Kennedy made a lot happen when it comes to civil rights. But he needed a little ‘prodding’ to take action. Many have argued that he was initially a bystander, not willing to take the firm action that he later took in 963 by calling for a real Civil Rights Act. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fellow civil rights advocates went through a lot just to make Kennedy act. At the time of his death even, Kennedy just had a small record of civil rights accomplishment. He obviously did a lot of good things, including sending troops to protect students at the universities of Alabama and Mississippi, as well as banning racial discrimination in public accommodations. The point is – he could have done a lot more!

Kennedy did a lot of great things during his tenure as president. Like most other presidents, though, he just wasn’t perfect.

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