John F. Kennedy’s Childhood and Education

John F. Kennedy, or Jack as his family called him, was born on May 29, 1917. He had an older brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. and seven younger siblings. He spent the first decade of his life in Brookline, Massachusetts. JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy Sr. didn’t play an active role in young Jack’s life since he was often away on business. His mother, Rose Kennedy, did have help with the children though. She needed it since Jack was often ill. The family joked that if a mosquito bit Jack, it would be sorry because it would catch whatever illness he had at the time.

Eventually the Kennedys moved to Bronxville, New York. Thanks to his father’s successful business ventures, the family could afford several different homes. They spent summers in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Easter and Christmas holidays took place at their home in Palm Beach, Florida.

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Kennedy family at Hyannis Port Sept. 4, 1931. JFK at left in white shirt, Joe Jr. far right

Jack and his older brother were extremely competitive. Joe Sr. encouraged this quality in his sons. He often said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Unfortunately for Jack, his brother was both two years older and stronger, so if they fought Jack got beat up. Jack couldn’t best Joe as a student, either. Joe had ambition. Since childhood Joe said that he wanted to become the first Catholic President of the United States. While Joe worked hard in all his subjects, Jack tended to pay attention only to the ones that interested him, such as English.

When he enrolled at Choate boarding school in ninth grade, Jack found other ways of distinguishing himself from Joe. While Joe was the better student and an accomplished athlete, Jack became the class clown. He formed a group at Choate called the Muckers, which was responsible for many school pranks. Most memorably, they exploded a toilet seat with a firecracker. Jack was nearly expelled for that incident. Instead, poor health interfered with his studies. He was diagnosed with colitis. It made him tired and he also lost his appetite. He got well enough to graduate in the middle of his class. Despite his mediocre performance as a student, his classmates voted him most likely to succeed.

Jack’s colitis interfered again when he entered Princeton and had to quit after six weeks. In 1936, he enrolled at Harvard. While there, he produced a campus newspaper called the “Freshman Smoker” and got a spot on the varsity swim team. He wanted to play football, too, but he ruptured a disk in his spine. From then on JFK always lived with back pain.

In 1938, Joe Sr. served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain. Both Jack and Joe Jr. went to Great Britain to work with their father. To prepare for his senior thesis, Jack traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. He returned to London on September 1, 1939—the same day that World War II began. Jack’s thesis pointed out that Great Britain was unprepared for war because it had neglected its military. Published as Why England Slept, his work became a bestseller. He used the money he made from the book to buy a Buick convertible, but he also gave the royalties he made from Great Britain to charity.

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Lt. John F. Kennedy, 1942

After graduation, Jack joined his brother in the U.S. Navy. Joe was a flyer and Jack was a Lieutenant assigned to the South Pacific. Only Jack came home. Joe Jr. died when his plane blew up during a mission in Europe.

Joe’s death changed everything for JFK. With his oldest son gone, Jack’s father encouraged him to abandon his interests in writing and teaching to run for Congress. JFK won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. His political career had begun.

History Book Review: When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Instead of trying to tell the main character’s whole life story, this engaging picture book focuses on Marian Anderson’s singing. Readers follow Marian’s development from a young girl singing in her church to a professional performer. Elements of Marian’s personal life are only included if they influenced her singing. For example, we learn that Marian’s father died in an accident because his passing filled Marian’s voice with sadness.

From the illustrations the reader knows that Marian is African American, but she isn’t discriminated against until she tries to apply to a music school. While waiting in line, she hears the person behind the counter blurt out “We don’t take colored!” Despite this setback, Marian took private music lessons. She became a popular performer throughout the U.S. Still, she still had to travel in railroad cars that were separate and dirtier than the ones reserved for white people.

The most obvious example of discrimination came in 1939 when Marian attempted to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The manager refused and said only whites could perform there. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard about this, she publicly resigned from the organization that sponsored the hall. With the permission of President Franklin Roosevelt, Marian got to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Her encore performance of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” silenced the crowd of 75,000 people.

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Painting of Marian Anderson by Betsy Graves Reyneau

Though Marian is portrayed as a determined person, the author also makes her human. For example, Marian was often nervous before her performances and sometimes sang with her eyes closed. Anyone who ever gave a presentation at school or work can relate to how Marian felt. Not everyone gets to study music in Europe as Marian did, but readers can still understand Marian’s homesickness.

The author points out that even though Marian was determined to achieve her dream of someday singing at the Metropolitan Opera, she had help along the way. Marian’s mother encouraged her to continue her private lessons when her daughter was rejected by the music school.

Famous music teacher Giuseppe Boghetti was less concerned with Marian’s skin color than with her talent. He told her that after two years with him, she would be able to sing anywhere. In addition, Marian’s church community helped out by paying for her lessons with Boghetti.

At the end of the story, Marian finally realizes her dream of singing for the Metropolitan Opera. She had to wait 16 years after her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, however. Readers can takeaway from this book that dreams can come true, but it might take time and some support from other people to accomplish them.

The back of the book contains a helpful timeline of important events in Marian’s life, including those the story doesn’t cover. I was disappointed that the CD that came with the book did not include Marian’s voice (it’s a narration of the book), but the bibliography says where readers can find recordings of her performances. Unfortunately the bibliography is hidden in the author’s notes at the back of the book, making it somewhat difficult to find.

In summary, this book does a wonderful job of introducing kids  and adults to a courageous African American woman who realized her dreams despite some people’s prejudices.

“Give-’em-hell-Harry” The Presidency of Harry Truman

Future president Harry Truman had a difficult childhood. A kid wearing glasses was a rare thing in the farm town of Independence, Missouri, and his schoolmates teased him. Since he was not very tall, they nicknamed him “little four eyes.”

Young Harry Truman also had different goals than most other children. He loved music and hoped to become a concert pianist. As a result of his father’s bad investments Truman could no longer receive piano lessons or even apply to college. Although he hated it, he worked the family farm until his father died. Truman then tried his hand at various business ventures, all of which failed.

Despite his poor eyesight and the fact that he was past the draft age, Harry managed to serve as a combat artillery captain in World War I. He discovered his ability to lead other people and gained the respect of his men. The experience boosted his confidence. He returned to Missouri as a war hero and married his sweetheart Bess Wallace.

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Official Presidential Portrait of Harry Truman

Truman needed to support his family and had to find work. After another business failure, he decided to try politics. It helped that he had kept in touch with the other veterans he served with during World War I. With the help of his friends and Democratic Party boss Tom Pendergast, Harry got elected first as a judge and later to other county offices. Despite his association with Pendergast, who had criminal ties, Harry became known for his honesty and his desire to help the common man during the Great Depression.

In 1934 Truman was elected to the U.S. Senate. He served as chairman of a committee that uncovered the Defense Department’s wasteful spending. The public found Truman’s honesty and even his swearing so refreshing that they nicknamed him “Give-’em-hell-Harry.”

During the 1944 presidential election Truman was selected as President Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president. Only a few months after he became vice-president, Roosevelt died and Truman had to take over. At the time he thought, “There must be a million other men more qualified for the presidential task. But the work was mine to do, and I had to do it.”

Chief among Truman’s tasks was to bring World War II to a successful conclusion. Even after Germany surrendered, the fighting with Japan dragged on. Truman believed that if the war in the Pacific continued, up to 100,000 American soldiers could die. He decided that if Japan refused to surrender, he would use the new atomic bomb.

On July 26, 1945, Truman warned Japan that it would be destroyed if it continued to fight. The Japanese Emperor still would not give up. In August, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs, one on the town of Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki. Finally, the Japanese Emperor surrendered and the war was over.

Truman received criticism in later years for using the atomic bombs, which mostly killed Japanese civilians. He never regretted his decision, however. As Truman put it “The greatest part of the president’s job is to make decisions…he can’t pass the buck to anybody.”

After World War II Truman turned his attention to stopping the spread of communism. The start of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union worried voters, and Truman’s popularity suffered. In 1948 he was probably the only person who thought he would be re-elected president. He took the campaign seriously and made hundreds of speeches throughout the country on his “Whistle-stop campaign” tour. Truman’s confidence proved to be prophetic when he won.

Truman’s second term was dominated by his decision to support South Korea when it was invaded by communist North Korea. He never asked Congress for a declaration of war because he feared the public would be reminded of World War II. As the war went on, Truman’s popularity took a nosedive.

Even though he had a poor approval rating, the public was still shocked when he announced that he didn’t plan to run for president again. He took delight in returning to Missouri and becoming “Mr. Citizen.” Truman lived to see much of his reputation restored. He became known not only for overseeing the end of World War II but also for desegregating the military and banning racial discrimination in the federal government.

 

American Politicians and Immigration Policy: A Troubled History

Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty are these words: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The poet should have put an asterisk after these lines that read “unless politicians find it inconvenient to admit certain refugees; in that case the door is closed.”

U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY DURING WORLD WAR II

In the 1930s and 1940s, the door to the United States was closed to Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis. With the exception of the work done by the War Refugee Board in 1944 (by which time most of Europe’s Jews were dead), President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration stood by while 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

U.S. State Department excuses for not loosening immigration quotas included the possibility that Jews might be acting as spies for the Nazi government. Despite this theory, the record indicates that only one enemy agent entered the country as a refugee, and that refugee was not Jewish.

In order to enter the U.S., Jewish refugees had to endure so much government red tape that by the time the State Department approved a visa, the applicant had often been deported to a concentration camp. Even a congressional bill to accept 20,000 Jewish children was rejected because, as President Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin Laura Delano stated, “twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

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Syrian Refugees at Budapest Railway Station, 4 Sept. 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

CURRENT U.S. POLICY ON IMMIGRATION

At the moment, Syrian refugees are the most unpopular group in the United States. A few months ago, Mexican immigrants, all of whom politicians like Donald Trump seem to think are rapists or drug dealers, were enemy Number One, but opinions change quickly. The terror attacks in France gave U.S. politicians who did not want immigrants entering the country the perfect excuse to say, “We do not want Syrian immigrants in America. They are coming to attack us.”

Yet out of 784,000 refugees that have entered the U.S. since September 11, 2001, only three were arrested for planning terrorist activities. Only one of the three spoke of targeting the U.S., and even he had no specific plan. People risking their lives to get out of their country (and plenty, including young children, have died in the attempt) are unlikely to target a country that provides them with food and shelter.

Despite the fact that the U.S has pledged to admit only 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, even this number is too large for some politicians. Last week in the House of Representatives, 47 Democrats and 242 Republicans voted to put new security limits on those immigrants. Apparently these representatives are unaware that the security screening process is already so complicated that it takes 18-24 months (more than a year) before a refugee from Syria can ever enter the U.S.

In contrast to the reluctance of the U.S. to admit Syrian refugees, Germany is projected to take in 800,000 refugees by the end of this year. Germany–a country Jewish refugees tried to flee from in the 1930s and 1940s–is now taking in hundreds of thousands more refugees than the U.S. ever planned to welcome.

France, the country with the most recent terror attacks and the country that gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty, has promised to continue accepting immigrants from Syria. America, the nation of immigrants, is becoming the nation of exclusion.

A Short History of American Opposition to Immigration

New Colossus: Emma Lazarus' poem at base of Statue of Liberty

New Colossus: Emma Lazarus’ poem at base of Statue of Liberty

“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The words of Emma Lazarus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty must have sounded ironic to many hopeful American immigrants. Even Lazarus’ poem hinted that immigrants would not be completely welcome, however. The poem’s next verse refers to them as “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Refuse is another word for garbage. Immigrants throughout America’s history have been treated like garbage—often turned away from the country they saw as their only hope for a better life.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Asian and European immigrants trying to enter the U.S. faced strict immigration laws. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, suspended all Chinese immigration for ten years.

During the 1930s, Jews fleeing the Nazis received little aid from the U.S. government. In 1939, the St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees, was not allowed to land in Cuba. For weeks, the ship hovered near the U.S. coast, but President Franklin Roosevelt refused to give the passengers even temporary sanctuary. The ship returned to Europe, and many passengers later died in Nazi concentration camps.

Any immigrants who managed to come to America still experienced discrimination. Ironically, other immigrants who arrived in  America somewhat earlier often mistreated newcomers. In 1890, Jacob Riis wrote in How the Other Half Lives, “the once unwelcome Irishman has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew, and the Chinaman, and has himself taken a hand at opposition…against these latter hordes.”

Anti-Semitism was prevalent in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s. A poll from 1938 showed that Americans not only opposed Jewish immigration, but they disliked Jews more than any other minority. Even Jewish children were unwelcome. In response to a Congressional bill that would allow Jewish children to enter the country under the immigration quota, FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano, stated, “twenty-thousand charming children would all to soon turn into twenty-thousand ugly adults.”

Today many people still object to the immigration of people who are fleeing from poverty and violence in their home countries. Immigration reform is a hot-button issue in political campaigns across the U.S. Even with the background checks, fines, the requirement to learn English and having to wait in line for years behind legal immigrants under the comprehensive immigration reform bill, some Americans want to deport the eleven million immigrants who are living in the United States illegally. That number includes children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.

The mindset of Americans toward immigration hasn’t changed much since the nineteenth century. The immigrants that some are seeking to keep out or deport may look different, but the desire to turn them away remains the same.

President Franklin Roosevelt and Few Civil Rights for African Americans

Despite the efforts of his wife Eleanor and African American leaders, President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration made little progress on civil rights.

New Deal programs discriminated against blacks. For example, under the Works Progress Administration, blacks received less pay than whites for the same work. This was especially true in the South. The discrimination was somewhat eased by the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who personally viewed the struggles of blacks during visits to WPA projects. She wrote, “It is all wrong to discriminate between white and black men!”

FDR agreed to sign an executive order barring discrimination in the WPA. One million black families benefited from WPA wages. However, discrimination in other parts of the New Deal persisted. The Federal Housing Authority refused to help blacks trying to buy houses in white neighborhoods. The National Recovery Administration persisted in paying black workers less than whites. Even the Social Security Act excluded the menial jobs that most blacks held.

Applicants waiting for jobs in front of Federal Emergency Relief Administration office

Applicants waiting for jobs in front of Federal Emergency Relief Administration office, 1935

For black leaders, however, the most frustrating issue was FDR’s stance on the anti-lynching bill introduced in Congress in early 1934. Although twenty-six African Americans were killed by mobs the year before, FDR took no stance whatsoever on the bill. The Amsterdam News commented on FDR’s lack of support for the bill using the headline “Here’s Mr. Roosevelt’s Message on Lynching.” The article contained one sentence, “In his annual message to Congress last Friday President Roosevelt had the following to say about lynching:” That sentence was followed by a large blank space.

FDR tried to explain to African American leaders why he could not back the bill. He told NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White, “I did not choose the tools with which I must work.” In order get votes for New Deal programs, FDR felt he couldn’t antagonize Southern Democrats by supporting a bill they found offensive. He told critics “you have to wait, even for the best of things, until the right time comes.” Apparently FDR never thought there was a right time to support an anti-lynching bill. Although members of Congress proposed other anti-lynching bills during his long presidency, he never backed them.

In contrast to her husband, Eleanor publicly backed the anti-lynching campaign. When Walter White asked her to attend a NAACP art exhibit called “A Commentary on Lynching,” Eleanor lent her support. Interestingly, FDR did not attempt to stop his wife’s actions. Perhaps FDR agreed with her privately, but Eleanor’s actions also encouraged to blacks to switch their allegiance from the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln to FDR and the Democrats. Ever the politician, FDR was likely happy to have his wife express her feelings to get the African American vote while he placated Southern voters by saying nothing.

Sources:

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Why I Wrote A Book about The War Refugee Board

Picture it: Chicago, December 2001. I was looking for a topic for my honors thesis. I knew I wanted to work with my history advisor, who was a Holocaust historian. Since I spent most of my time studying U.S. history, I decided to dig for information on America and the Holocaust. My advisor told me that America and the Holocaust was too broad for my thesis. He also suggested that I look for a topic that hadn’t received much attention. I asked if I could write about Eleanor Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust. He said yes, if I found enough information on it. A couple of hours at the library told me that my new idea was too narrow.

While sifting through books on U.S. and the Holocaust, I discovered a chapter here and there in several books about a government agency created in 1944 called the War Refugee Board. At first I thought, a thesis about a government agency? BORING. Once I started reading about the people behind the agency, though, things got interesting. These men were not household names (anyone familiar with John Pehle, and if so, how to pronounce his name?), but they were working their tails off trying to save the few Jews who hadn’t been murdered yet in the Holocaust. 

I started to ask myself questions like why wasn’t the War Refugee Board created sooner? What drove these men, who were mostly from Protestant backgrounds, to risk their jobs by going to the president and criticizing the administration’s lack of response to the Holocaust? So I wrote my thesis, and put it on my bookshelf. I always thought the topic would make a great book and that a well-known historian would write it.

FDR Library

Fast forward several years, and no one else had written a book about the WRB. I contacted my former professor, who encouraged me to do more research on my old topic. Ironically, shortly after I wrote my thesis, a major project to collect the papers of the War Refugee Board was completed. I discovered that I could borrow microfilm from the Library of Congress and read the actual memos that FDR and Board representatives wrote. I spent at least a year of my life looking through those documents, and then I visited the FDR library in Hyde Park because I couldn’t borrow everything I needed. (The picture on the top of my blog and in this post is of me outside the library. I was one relieved researcher)!

My book wasn’t going to rehash my thesis, however. After studying the memos and other government documents related to the Board, I made an interesting discovery. Not only did the members of the War Refugee Board save Jews, but they also made an impact on American foreign policy that continues today. As I mentioned in a previous post, I hoped for a publishing contract, but decided to self-publish when that didn’t happen. Hopefully self-publishing will make my work available to the largest possible number of people, since that always was my main goal.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Champion for Youth

During the Depression, young people had little hope of finding work or attending college. In 1934 Eleanor Rooseveltshowed concern for 3 million unemployed youth. She said, “I have moments of real terror when I think we may be losing this generation. We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary.”

Eleanor Roosevelt's school portrait

Eleanor Roosevelt’s school portrait

Eleanor’s wish came true through a new government agency—The National Youth Administration. By 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt had received several proposals for youth aid programs. He gave these proposals to a private group, which included the future chairman of the NYA and Eleanor. The group advocated scholarship aid for high school and college students as well as a work program for youth who had graduated or dropped out. FDR established the NYA by Executive Order on June 26, 1935.

There was no greater supporter of the program during its eight year existence than Eleanor Roosevelt. She pressed the head of the NYA to do more during the NYA’s first year and received monthly reports on the status of youth projects.

Eleanor wrote extensively about the NYA in her newspaper column, “My Day.” She kept the country informed of the NYA’s progress by describing her visits to NYA project sites. On a trip to L.A., for example, Eleanor noted that the wood-working and sewing projects were set up like a real factory so that the boys and girls who worked there would be better prepared when they found full-time employment. Her visits to youth projects spanned the country. History Professor Margaret Rung points out that though Eleanor could be a controversial figure, her columns developed generally positive publicity for the NYA. Without her support, the program could have been marginalized.

Her columns reveal that Eleanor was not only interested in observing NYA projects, but she also attended NYA committee meetings. Eleanor invited both administrators and students to her Hyde Park, New York, home to discuss issues within the program. Through her invitations she gave everyone involved in the NYA a chance to be heard by someone who had direct access to the president.

Although Eleanor wanted the NYA to become a permanent organization, she realized its limitations. She wrote, “here, before our eyes, we see the proof that we have learned how to give these youngsters training…Yet, we have only developed this program for a limited number. The  NYA should cover every boy and girl coming out of school who is not able to obtain work in private industry, or who is not called to service under the selective draft.”

The NYA did not become a permanent program and could not cover all youth, but its accomplishments were aided by Eleanor’s enthusiasm. During the NYA’s eight year existence, 2,134,000 youth had the opportunity to continue their education. Students in the school program did clerical work, remodeled buildings, worked in libraries, and became lab assistants to earn money for school supplies and clothes. Students in the out-of-school program were often involved in construction work, but had other options such as clerical and agricultural training.

By 1942 work programs focused on producing materials needed in World War II. Students learned industrial sewing and how to repair planes and radios. In her column Eleanor shared a letter that five girls who worked on radios wrote to the director of the Kansas NYA after finding jobs: “On average we are making $50 a month and for the five of us it doesn’t cost very much for rent or groceries…The spirit of cooperation and working together [from their NYA experience] is largely responsible for the way we are getting along so well up here.”

Eleanor grieved when the NYA ended. She felt that young people would need job training after the war. By supporting the agency during its existence, however, she enabled millions of youth to earn wages during the nation’s worst economy.