John F. Kennedy’s election over Richard Nixon in 1960 seemed to many Americans to indicate that the country was on the verge of tremendous change. Kennedy was not only the second youngest man to be elected, he was the first (and so far only) Roman Catholic.
His time in office was marked by upheaval and momentous challenges, both domestically and overseas. Major events included the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, changes in the conflict in Vietnam, a showdown with the Soviets in Berlin, and an escalating civil rights movement. Tragically, Kennedy would not survive his term in office. He was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Objective: Students should be able to describe major events during the Kennedy presidency.
- Classroom computer with projector
- Copies of New York Times article on Bay of Pigs Invasion
1. Introduce JFK by talking about the 1960 election, including the significance of the televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon and the difference in age. If you wish, you can show clips of the debates, which can be found here:
2. Discuss the intensity of the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Remind students of the (legitimate) fear surrounding nuclear weapons that both the Americans and the Soviets had. Talk about the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and have students read the New York Times article from that day, which can be found here:
3. Transition into the Cuban Missile Crisis, explaining how a lack of clear protocols for direct communication between Khrushchev and Kennedy nearly led to war. Show students the following graphic about the range of the nuclear weapons in Cuba:
4. Talk about Kennedy’s determination to not “give in” to Khrushchev anywhere. This included a new approach to national defense, known as flexible response. The result was a continued buildup of both nuclear and conventional forces and an increase of military advisors being sent to Vietnam. Kennedy also traveled to Berlin to visit the Berlin Wall and to hearten West Berliners. Excerpts from his speech can be found here:
5. Finally, Kennedy had to deal with a burgeoning civil rights movement at home. As his election had been exceptionally close, the African-American vote was important to him. Likewise, white southerners, many of whom were in favor of segregation, had also supported him. Kennedy, with his eye on the election of 1964, tread lightly in trying not to alienate either group. Events such as the Freedom Rides, the Albany Movement, and the March on Washington made his job a difficult one. Finish class with a discussion of this, accompanied by excerpts of Kennedy asking for civil rights legislation in 1963, which can be found here:
- John F. Kennedy meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna
- John F. Kennedy, White House photo portrait
This post is part of the series: The 1960s: Conflict, Rebellion and Change
- The Kennedy Presidency: A High School History Lesson Plan
- Major Historical Events During the Johnson Presidency
- High School Lesson Plan: The Vietnam War
- Anti-War Sentiment and the 1968 Chicago Protests
- Civil Rights in the 1960s – Key Events and Philosophies