Development of the President

PRESIDENT KENNEDY SOUGHT TO INSPIRE YOUNG PEOPLE TO SERVE THEIR COUNTRY. He was a leader whose credentials were hard-won: he had been a war hero,  he had traveled through Europe questioning the possibility of another war, and he wrote his college thesis (published as Why England Slept) analyzing the anemic early response of Great Britain to the rise of Nazis.  Later, he wrote a book about Americans of political courage, Profiles in Courage.  He had learned what it meant to have courage and to serve.

In the book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell speaks about heros. Campbell explains that the ultimate goal of the hero is not fame but the wisdom and power to serve others.  “One of the many distinctions between the celebrity and the hero is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society.” 1 This section explores how John Kennedy developed the confidence to lead and to inspire a nation.

Family, education, illness and war formed this inspirational leader.

Kennedy Family at Hyannis Port, 1931

Family and Education

The Kennedys were wealthy, ambitious, well-connected and loyal. Family and education were intertwined as life experiences and expectations for success were part of the daily education of the children. Access to political and business leaders was assured and provided the children the opportunity to measure their own intellect and skills against the powerful.

John Kennedy’s family was prominent and politically active. His grandfathers were Boston’s first American-born Irish mayor, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and Joseph P. Kennedy, a Massachusetts state senator and influential businessman. His father, Joe, sought power through wealth. He was a bank president at 25, made important connections during WWI while managing production in the Quincy shipbuilding plant; and in 1919, joined a Boston brokerage firm. Over the next few years, he amassed a fortune.

Joe Kennedy, who wanted his children to be strong and successful, was known to say, “We don’t want any losers … in this family, we want winners!”2   At the same time, Rose Kennedy reminded them of their responsibility to others: “to whom much is given, much is expected.”3

School for John (known familiarly as Jack} was a succession of prestigious private schools where he would associate with children of the powerful, wealthy and socially prominent: Riverdale Country Day School, Choate, Harvard … and private tutoring to complete classes missed due to illness. At Choate, “Jack played out several impulses that dominated his early life.  He tested the rules so boldly at Choate because he believed he could get away with it.  As the son of a wealthy and prominent family, John felt invulnerable to [the headmaster’s] strictures. But he also understood that the limits … might be influenced by [his] own powers to ingratiate himself with both his elders and his peers.” 4

An essay on “Justice” that was written by John Kennedy (at age 16) speaks of the importance of family, and the family situation for a person’s success in life.5   His eloquence and compassion for those less fortunate are apparent.  Images of the two-page essay are shown below.  The text follows:

“We read in the newspaper, periodicals and in most of the other products of the printing press, we hear from the pulpits, soap-boxes, and the other numerous locations that orators choose; about the word justice. Justice is pictured as a lady holding scales in her hand on which is weighed right and wrong. Always is the word linked with God until it has come to have an almost synonymous meaning. But should this be so? To quote Webster, Justice means ‘The rendering to everyone his just due.’ But does God render to everyone his just due?

“A boy is born in a rich family, brought up in a clean environment with an excellent education and good companions, inherits a fool-proof business from his father, is married and then eventually dies a just and honest man. Take the other extreme. A boy is born in the slums, of a poor family, has evil companions, no education; becomes a loafer, as that is all there is to do, turns into a drunken bum, and dies, worthless. Was it because of the rich boys ability that he landed in the lap of luxury, or was it that poor boys fault that he was born in squalor? The answer will often come back ‘the poor boy will get his reward in the life hereafter if he is good.’ While that is a dubious prospect to many of us, yet there’s something in it. But how much better chance has [the] boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth of being good than the boy who from birth is surrounded by rottenness and filth. This even to the most religious of us can hardly seem a ‘square deal.’ Thus we see that justice is not always received from ‘The Most Just’ so how can we poor mortals ever hope to attain it.”

John Kennedy Essay on Justice p1
John Kennedy Essay on Justice p2

After graduation from Choate, John studied briefly at the London School of Economics (as his brother Joe had done before him).  Admission to Harvard was assured by his father’s position and wealth, as well as his brother Joe’s successes there.6

In 1937, after his freshman year at Harvard, Kennedy traveled in Europe and sought out the political views of the local people. When later that year, President Roosevelt appointed his father ambassador to Great Britain, it provided John entrée to world leaders, and secured the family’s social standing. John again traveled to Europe in 1938 and worked for a brief time in the US embassy in London.

He took leave from Harvard in the spring of 1939 to go to Europe to do research for his senior thesis.  As his father was an Ambassador, John was hosted by American diplomats throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East who arranged interviews and provided him with information on the political climate. Glamorous occasions included meeting the British royals and joining his father, who was representing President Roosevelt, in Rome for the coronation of Pope Pius XII.

Joe Kennedy Jr, Joe Kennedy Sr, John Kennedy arrive in Southhampton

He studied the political situation intently.  His letters were “filled with details about German intentions toward Poland and the likely reactions of Britain, France, Russia, Romania, and Turkey.  [He traveled to] Danzig and Warsaw in May, where he spoke to Nazi and Polish officials, and then on to Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, Bucharest, Turkey, Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, and Athens.” 7   In August, he traveled in England, France, Germany and Italy. Against the advice and wishes of the embassy there, Jack visited Prague which was then under Nazi control, to better understand the situation..  In September, in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war. John and his family were present at Parliament to hear PM Neville Chamberlain and member of Parliament Winston Churchill speak.

His final travel before returning to Harvard for his senior year was to Glasgow.  A British ocean liner carrying 1400 passengers had been sunk by a German submarine and Joe sent John to help the passengers. He requested a military escort to return passengers to the US, but it was not provided as neither the government nor Joe felt Germany would attack an American vessel.

John’s senior thesis discussed the origins of Britain’s appeasement policy; it benefitted from his conversations with countrymen and American ambassadors across Europe and upon returning to the US, his conversations with the British ambassador, Lord Lothian.  The following year, after much revision, the thesis was published as a book, and generated much interest.

With publication of his book, John was building his own reputation and had become his own man. His father’s public image had diminished in 1938, “when he publicly expressed favor for Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany at Munich… [However,] when Joe resigned his ambassadorship in December 1940, John counseled him on what to say to insulate him from charges of appeasement and identification with Chamberlain’s failed policies.”8   He also advised his father not to oppose FDR’s Lend-Lease bill that was meant to help England defeat Germany saying that withholding aid would in the end be more costly and might drive the US into war with Germany.


Kennedy’s family influenced his character development, as did his constant health issues.  It is known today that John Kennedy suffered with poor health all his life.  Whooping cough, measles, chicken pox, scarlet fever, mumps, and German measles frequently sent him to his bed in his youth, as did an appendectomy (1932) and tonsillectomy.  Scarlet fever at age two was so serious he was given last rites.  He recovered after six weeks of hospitalization and another six weeks of isolation, precautions were taken to avoid transmitting the potentially fatal disease to his young siblings.

Poor health continued through college years and naval service.  Despite this handicap, Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1940 and enrolled in a graduate business program at Stanford needing soon to withdraw for further medical testing.  In September 1940, the first peacetime draft was authorized. In 1941, when Kennedy sought admission to officer candidate programs, he was rejected due to poor health; his father’s intervention smoothed the way to a naval commission.

His long-undiagnosed Addison’s disease and the medications prescribed for gastro-intestinal problems contributed to the debilitating back pain he suffered. 9 The disease was finally diagnosed in 1947 while he was traveling abroad. He returned to the U.S. gravely ill and was given the last rites of the Catholic Church.10 Before the age of 30, Kennedy had had several stays in school infirmaries, undergone extensive testing five times at the Mayo clinic, and spent three months in a Boston hospital.11

In a life so permeated with pain and worry, how was Kennedy able to overcome these limitations and inspire his country to send a man to the moon ” and do the other things?” Jon Meacham, writing in The Soul of America discusses this same question about President Franklin Roosevelt:12

How did he [FDR] do it?  … How did he salvage what seemed unsalvageable, rising to lead a nation through depression and world war?

One answer … lies in FDR’s sense of hope, a spirit of optimism forged in his own experience.  For it is not too much to say that a man who had personally survived cataclysm and overcome paralysis was well equipped– perhaps uniquely so — to prevail over national cataclysm and political paralysis.”

– Jon Meacham writing in The Soul of America


In 1941, Kennedy failed the physical exam for admission to each of the Army and Navy’s officer candidate schools.  However, through his father’s contacts, it was  arranged for him to enter the Navy and in October 1941 he was assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington D.C.  His job was to write, condense and edit news of international developments. His eloquence and ability to inspire his fellow citizens was already evident as he spoke in 1942 at an induction ceremony for navy recruits:

“A number of years ago in a room in Philadelphia, a group of men signed their names to a Declaration. For that, they could have been hanged. For that Declaration was revolutionary. It said that all men were created equal and were possessed of certain inalienable rights. That was treason and the penalty for treason was death. And yet, these men signed…

“[W]e sometimes forget the courage it took for those men to take their stand. It took indeed great courage. But it took even greater faith. By their signatures, these men pledged with their very lives their unity of conviction and their firm belief in the truth of their principles.

Ensign John Kennedy

“Today … we, in America, are faced with a similar decision. We must decide whether the allegiance which we profess to the principles upon which this government is based is mere lip service, or whether we truly believe in them to the extent that we are ready to die for them…

“Perhaps men throughout the world can never live according to those principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, in the Four Freedoms, in the Atlantic Charter, in Christianity itself. But that does not mean we should throw these principles aside. They represent ideals and goals worth working for – worth fighting for. A world which casts away all morality and principle – all hopeless idealism, if you will, – is not a world worth living in. It is only by striving upward that we move forward.

“For those who feel we have set our goal too high, let them consider the cause for which our enemies fight. Whatever their crimes, they cannot be accused of idealism. We say that all men are created equal. They deny it. They believe in the theory of the Master Race, in government by the elite – a government of a chosen few, by a chosen few, for a chosen few. We believe that man has certain inalienable rights. They say that man has no rights – he has duties. Only the State has rights…

“This war will not be easy. It may be very long. We have only begun to taste its hardships….”13

At his request, Kennedy was transferred to sea duty in July 1942. He attended  midshipman’s school in Chicago, graduating in September. He sought command of a PT (patrol-torpedo) boat.  Despite his known back problems, Kennedy received the highly contested appointment.  Upon repeated requests, he was transferred to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific in March of 1943. There the U.S. and Japan were engaged in combat.14

Kennedy immediately faced combat with death a real possibility.  Combat was not glamorous; the men he served with in the war zone focused on getting home alive. He was disillusioned by the conduct of the war. He was critical of General MacArthur’s strategy, critical of the posturing of commanders he saw, critical of the lack of management and urgency in the unloading of supplies, critical of the often inept leadership of academy-trained officers.  He found that the capability of PT boats had been overestimated and “over-sold” to the public, and despite claims of their effectiveness in sinking Japanese craft, their efficacy was questionable.  During a period of four months all of the PT boats in the Solomon Islands had sunk only one destroyer and one submarine.  This combat environment drove home the realization that  military leadership could be fallible.

Kennedy’s boat, PT-109 was one of 15 PT’s sent on August 1, 1943 to intercept a Japanese convoy.  The mission failed and PT-109 was rammed by a Japanese Destroyer.  Kennedy led the 10 survivors from his crew to swim to a deserted island, and later made contact with natives on a further island who were able to contact rescuers .  The significance of this event cannot be underestimated.  Kennedy, despite having further injured his back and experiencing constant pain, was responsible for the lives of the men he had commanded for the past three months, and did what was needed.  He was able to function and effectively lead while in grave danger.

Lt. Kennedy aboard the PT-109

After a few days of recovery, Kennedy took command of another PT boat. He returned to action in early October following a retrofit of the boat that left it as a partially armored gunship.  The unreliable torpedos were removed.  However, six weeks later, his back and stomach pain had become so severe that he was ordered to return to the U.S.  for medical treatment and arrived January 3, 1944.

Although he resisted it for several months, surgery took place in July 1944 removing abnormally soft cartilage.  Back pain continued and intestinal pain was constant.  He was retired from the military for medical reasons in March 1945.


1 Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Anchor Books. New York, 1991.

2 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1978. p 14.

3 Mark Mooney and Russell Goldman, “Ted Kennedy Was Surrounded by Crying, Praying Family,” ABC News. Aug. 26, 2009. (Reporting on the death of Senator Ted Kennedy and recalling his mother, Rose Kennedy’s motto.

4 Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life John F Kennedy 1917-1963, Little, Brown and Company. New York, 2003. pp 39-40.

5 Papers of John F. Kennedy. Personal Papers. Early Years, 1928-1940. Choate yearbook, 1935

5 Joseph P. Kennedy to John F. Kennedy 9/10/40 Box 4A, Personal Papers. John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

6 Quotes in this section as well as general reference to facts and events are from Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life John F Kennedy 1917-1963, pp 42-67. Specific references to p 53 and p 56.

7 Ibid p 57, p 59.

8 Ibid p 55, p 67.

9 According to Mayo Clinic, “in Addison’s disease the adrenal glands produce too little cortisol and often insufficient levels of aldosterone as well.” Symptoms known to have afflicted Kennedy, the inability to gain weight, abdominal pain and others symptoms are listed on the Mayo Clinic website. Mayo Clinic website:

10 Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life John F Kennedy 1917-1963, Little, Brown and Company. New York, 2003. pp 153-4.

  • In 1934, while a junior at Choate, he was treated for lucopenia, a deficit of white blood cells causing increased risk of infections. Later, having suffered constant intestinal problems and an inability to gain weight, he spent a month at Mayo Clinic, where he underwent numerous repeated and unpleasant tests.  The diagnosis of duodenitis, spastic colitis and intestinal and colonic inflammations required finding a better diet and relieving emotional stress but did not provide a solution.
  • In 1935, illness forced his return from Europe. Recuperation led to late enrollment at Princeton, then recurring illness caused him to withdrew  in December. He spent the next two months at a Boston hospital.
  • 1936  enrollment at Harvard  and participated in football and swimming.  1936-37 were years of relatively good health.
  • Feb 1938 saw more tests at Mayo Clinic, a stay in the Harvard infirmary, 4 weeks at New England Baptist Hospital.
  • Feb 1939 more tests at Mayo Clinic.
  • During 1940, onset of back pain and tests at Mayo Clinic.
  • December 1943 the Navy ordered Kennedy to return to Rhode Island for medical treatment
  • Jan 1944 at Mayo Clinic
  • Feb 1944 New England Baptist Hospital recommended back surgery
  • June 1944 Chelsea Naval hospital diagnosed a ruptured disk; operated on at New England Hospital. Soft cartilage was removed
  • In 1947 while traveling abroad, Addison’s disease was diagnosed; gravely ill upon return to the U.S. and given the last rites of the Catholic Church.11

11 Ibid p 78ff.

12 Jon Meacham, The Soul of America The Battle for Our Better Angels, Random House. New York. 2018 p 149.

13 Remarks of John F. Kennedy at an Induction Ceremony for Navy Recruits, Charleston, South Carolina, July 4, 1942. The Full text may be found at:  See the full text

14 Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life John F Kennedy 1917-1963, Little, Brown and Company. New York, 2003. p 82ff.

Photo Credits:

Kennedy Family at Hyannis Port, 1931. Photograph by Richard Sears in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain. Pictured, L-R: Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Kennedy (on lap of) Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy (behind) Patricia Kennedy, Kathleen Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (behind) Rosemary Kennedy. Dog in foreground is “Buddy”.

Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., and John F. Kennedy arriving at Southampton, England, July 2, 1938. Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Lt. Kennedy aboard the PT-109 in the South Pacific, 1943. Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain.

Citation for the Navy and Marine Corps medal presented to Lieutenant John F. Kennedy by U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal for his service in World War II. This medal is the second highest non-combatant medal awarded by the United States Department of the Navy to members of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps who distinguish themselves by acts of life-saving at great risks to one’s own life, not involving actual conflict with an enemy. Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.