Throughout the 1950s, the popular and capable Dwight D. Eisenhower served two terms as President of the United States. During his tenure, the nation enjoyed economic prosperity, small gains in Civil Rights, and tensions of the threat of foreign war with the Soviet Union and French Indochina – though Ike managed to keep the peace. Kennedy thought the President too aged and (incorrectly) felt he was not up to the task. Ike had been so adept at keeping the problems with Russia quiet, and the looming threat of Fidel Castro in Cuba, that Jack Kennedy thought he could do better. In 1960, he secured the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Since President Eisenhower had served for two terms – and had suffered a heart attack and mild stroke during his time in the White House – he was not going to run again. The Republicans chose Ike’s Vice-President, Richard Nixon, as their nominee.
The election of 1960 was the first one nationally televised. Kennedy appeared tan and relaxed – with his family surrounding him, including his expectant wife and daughter. Nixon appeared uncomfortable on television. On election night, Kennedy won by the narrowest margin up to that time. Nixon, to his credit, did not ask for a recount.
January 20, 1961 was a cold day in Washington. A snowstorm had recently blanketed the Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia with white. Kennedy appeared poised and ready. His inaugural speech was aimed at “ a new generation of Americans ” and was inspiring. Citing the recent wars, he spoke of the need for basic human rights and that the nation would champion those rights. “ Let every nation know ,” he said, “ 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 to assure the survival and success of liberty .” He spoke of our example of freedom as a “ glow from that fire can truly light the world .” He ended with the often quoted, “ And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you….ask what you can do for your country.” 11
As the Kennedys moved into the Executive Mansion, Ike and Mamie quietly drove to Gettysburg, where they received a warm welcome from the Gettysburg populace.
John Kennedy only served one thousand days as President. Though scholarly, he was callow and unused to the rigors – and dangers – of the office. A secret mission to thrust Castro from power in Cuba failed, known as The Bay of Pigs. Castro, incensed at the coup attempt, turned more to Soviet Russia. Khrushchev answered with missiles delivered to Cuba facing our shores, and the nation nearly faced nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy turned to Ike for help, and the former President gave sage advice.12
Kennedy’s tiring schedule plagued his health. Though he appeared robust in public, in private, his back pain caused him to sit in rocking chairs, even in the Oval Office.13
On March 30, 1963, the President, the First Lady and their daughter visited Gettysburg with a Secret Service detail. They took a guided tour with Jacob M. Sheads, the local high school history teacher, licensed battlefield guide and staunch Democratic supporter. They met in secret, behind a local bowling alley, and drove in a black convertible around the historic field. Sheads remembered that the President drove. When they approached the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on Oak Ridge, Mrs. Kennedy said to her husband, “ Wouldn’t that make a wonderful memorial for someone ?” They stopped at the North Carolina Memorial, and passed the Irish Brigade Monument near the Wheatfield. Ever the teacher, Sheads asked Kennedy if he knew the meaning to the Irish Brigade’s motto, “Faugh A Ballaugh.” 14
“Sure I know what it means,” JFK answered. “It means ‘Clear the Way.’” 15
When Sheads took them into the National Cemetery, both Kennedys were clearly impressed with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Sheads reminded Kennedy that November 19, 1963 – just six months distant – marked the centennial of that famous oration, and invited Kennedy to come to the ceremony and be the keynote speaker.
Sheads actually was not the one to make that invitation, as General Eisenhower, the town’s most prominent resident, would not have appreciated it. It turned out that Ike gave that keynote address at the centennial. Kennedy told Sheads he wouldn’t be able to come to the event. “I have to go to Dallas, ”he explained, “and mend fences.” 16
A second term loomed, and Kennedy needed to prepare. He did go to Dallas, with disastrous consequences.
On November 22, 1963, John and Jackie Kennedy arrived at Love Field in Dallas. Jackie had recently recovered from giving birth to a son, Patrick, who died shortly afterward. The tragedy seemed to draw the couple closer – but a greater tragedy befell them.
That day, John F. Kennedy, age 46, was assassinated in Dallas. He left a young widow, age 34 and two small children. The day of his funeral was his son, John’s, 3rd birthday. Both parents survived him. Even his maternal grandmother, Mary Josephine Hannon Fitzgerald, who was born the year Lincoln died, was still living at age 98. 17
A small piece of Gettysburg remains in John Kennedy’s memory. His grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. is crowned with an eternal light, reminiscent of Gettysburg’s Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Jackie could not have known that day at Gettysburg, that when she noticed and complimented the monument as a memorial for someone, she would be soon fashioning one for her husband’s grave.
Those thousand days when Kennedy was President are a half-century past. It is unlikely that, even if he had not been murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald in late 1963, Jack, with his myriad health issues, would probably not have lived to be one hundred. He will always be considered, however, as a young and vibrant leader, the first President to be born in the 20th century.
On his 100th, here in the 21st century, he is still fondly remembered.
Sources: Angelo, Bonnie. First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents . New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power: 1789-1961 . New York: William Morrow, 1990. Baer, Bret with Catherine Whitney. Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission . New York: HarperCollins, 2017. Caroli, Betty Boyd. Inside the White House . New York: Canopy Books, 1992. Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage . Forward by Robert F. Kennedy. New York: HarperCollins, 1964 (Reprint, first published in 1956). Kerrigan, Michael. American Presidents: A Dark History . London: Amber Books, 2011. Interview with Colonel Jacob Melchoir “Met” Sheads, April 10-22, 1998. Colonel Sheads, a well-known Gettysburg historian, died on February 17, 2002. Whitney, David C. The American Presidents . New York: Doubleday, 1993 (Reprint, first published in 1967.
1. Whitney, p. 303. Theodore Roosevelt was actually a few months younger than JFK when, as Vice-President, he took the oath of office upon the death of William McKinley. He had been elected as Vice-President, however. When he was (re) elected as President, he was a year older.
2. Angelo, p. 123.
3. Ibid. p. 128.
4. Kennedy, p. xii. The information was provided by Robert Kennedy, after JFK’s death, in the forward of the book.
5. Whitney, p. 304. Kerrigan, p. 189.
7. Angelo, p. 143.
8. Kerrigan, p. 193.
9. Anthony, p. 565.
10. Kennedy, p. xii.
11. Whitney, p. 309.
12. Baer, pp. 262-263. Ike has been unfairly blamed in part for the Bay of Pigs by some historians. Had Ike undertaken the coup, which he had avoided to keep the nation at peace, he would not have lost. This is the general who orchestrated the D-Day Invasion against Hitler, a much stronger adversary. He spoke about the ordeal with Kennedy only after the Bay of Pigs had failed. Before it occurred, Kennedy did not take Ike into his confidence.
13. Caroli, p. 101.
14. Interview with Col. Sheads, April 1998. It is interesting to note that JFK toured Gettysburg in a convertible. Another car, with Caroline and the Secret Servicedetail, followed.
15. Ibid. The monument with the inscription is found on The Loop, an area of the Wheatfield.
16. Ibid. On the 100th anniversary of thededication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, it was General Eisenhower who gave the keynote address.
17. Kennedy, p. xii. Rose’s mother was born October 31, 1865. She died in 1964.