Fifty years later, historians are still struggling to complete a picture that grows more complex with the years.
In This Issue
Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, The Atlantic resurfaces some of its best journalism about the 35th president and his legacy. Read classic articles by Robert F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, new pieces by Bill Clinton and Robert Dallek—plus rarely seen images and documents.
Historians tend to rate JFK as a good president, not a great one. But Americans consistently give him the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Why?
President Kennedy faced a foe more relentless than Khrushchev, just across the Potomac: the bellicose Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for the deployment of nuclear weapons and kept pressing to invade Cuba. A presidential historian reveals that Kennedy's success in fending them off may have been his most consequential victory.
In West Berlin in 1963, President Kennedy delivered his most eloquent speech on the world stage. The director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum tells the evocative story behind JFK’s words.
Fiction: What if Lee Harvey Oswald had lost his nerve? A historical novelist—who is also a student of the Kennedy assassination—imagines what might have happened next.
An artist's sketchbook
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"When power corrupts, poetry cleanses," the president declared.
The core of the Kennedy image was, in many respects, a lie. A presidential biographer, granted access to medical files, portrays a man far sicker than the public knew.
A photo essay
During the Kennedy years, The Atlantic regularly published unsigned reports that provided an insider's perspective on the mood in Washington. Here, the column described Kennedy's political ruthlessness, which helped him secure the Democratic nomination for president in 1960.
The 1960 presidential election offered voters a clear choice between a well-born candidate who cared about the poor and a candidate of modest birth who wanted government restrained.
As the 1960 presidential campaign was taking shape, an eminent political scientist examined the top candidates' leadership strategies for bringing an obstinate Congress to heel.
A photo essay
In assembling the youngest Cabinet in generations, the 43-year-old president insisted that his appointees think along similar lines and communicate easily. For the first time since the New Deal, an administration was in the hands of intellectuals.
Kennedy's team treated the bureaucracy as the enemy, launching a counterinsurgency that centralized authority in the White House, and placed a dangerous amount of power in one man's hands.
President Kennedy's leadership style generated a "creative tension" that energized the executive branch, but his proposals failed to excite Congress.
As New England’s textile-mill business and other industries fled to the low-wage South, a freshman senator from Massachusetts suggested a solution.
Candidate Kennedy promised a civil-rights bill, but President Kennedy was cautious—overly cautious, critics said—in proposing legislative action.
Action, action, action—that was the new administration's instinct. But six months into Kennedy's term, the success of his agenda still hinged on whether the economy would pick up enough to pay for it.
The president's brother came to be considered one of the nation's most effective attorneys general. His interest in organized crime, dating to his Senate staff work during the 1950s, led him to crusade against illegal gambling, which was known to finance criminal enterprises.
"My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now," President Kennedy famously said when he felt steel executives had double-crossed him by raising prices.
In 1961, when President Kennedy declared that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, critics complained about the cost. In response, two scientists argued that the endeavor shouldn't be thought of in terms of budgets or even science, but rather in terms of pursuing a "great adventure" on behalf of mankind.
Kennedy never worked well with Congress, even while he was a member. Here, a longtime television correspondent examines the cultural roots of JFK's problems on Capitol Hill.
A photo essay
Kennedy's concern for the plight of the poor never turned into a broad legislative program. But his successor seized on the issue, claiming it was the martyred president's last wish that he do so.
A former first lady's notion for competing with the Soviets: give young Americans a chance to spend two years in an underdeveloped country, offering help and spreading goodwill toward the West
In 1960, Kennedy campaigned hard against the Republican negligence that had allowed the Soviet Union to overtake the United States in producing missiles. Once in office, however, JFK learned that there was no missile gap—which gave him an opening to negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength.
Every president of the postwar era longed for the approval of Walter Lippmann, the voice of the Eastern establishment. Here, Lippmann praised Kennedy for avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.
Conventional wisdom has tended to rank the Cuban missile crisis as the Kennedy presidency's highest drama and grandest success. Drama, yes. But this provocative recounting of the administration's policy toward Castro's Cuba suggests that Kennedy brought the crisis on himself.
By shoring up U.S. military strength and resolve, President Kennedy persuaded the Soviet Union to back down in Berlin and Cuba, bringing a measure of peace to a world frightened about the threat of nuclear war.
"Many in government or close to it," The Atlantic noted in 1968, "will read the following article with the shock of recognition." An insider explained the bureaucratic imperatives that muzzled dissenters and kept policy makers ignorant of foreign cultures.
In an issue that went to press just before President Kennedy's death, The Atlantic described how JFK's difficulties in influencing events had brought gloom to the White House.
A photo essay
"It is in keeping with the Atlantic tradition that we should strive to give the long view of our late president," the magazine noted shortly after Kennedy's tragic death. "We turn to Harvard's leading historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, for an estimate of President Kennedy's place in history."
Remembering Jacqueline Kennedy's public dignity in the face of catastrophe
Was President Kennedy murdered because of his actions against Cuba? His successor suspected so.
JFK was a loving family man who doted on his children—and a philanderer who seduced an intern in his wife's bed.
In 1966, The Atlantic assigned the NBC News correspondent Douglas Kiker to take the measure of the late president's brother and political heir, who, seeing the presidency as his destiny and his due, was biding his time until Lyndon B. Johnson was out of the way.
How a Kennedy brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, fell victim to the jealous acolytes of a political dynasty in mourning
Jack, Jackie, Bobby—or is it Elvis, Marilyn, Ringo? The Kennedys have left the realm of politics to reign as entertainment superstars, at the intersection of Washington and Hollywood.