Before the White House

X ublic life was not the first choice among possible futures for John F. Kennedy as he returned from World War II. Kennedy in principle could have chosen among many career paths. Kennedy’s own inclination seems to have leaned in the direction of becoming a journalist, a writer of nonfic­tion books, or even an academic. Kennedy’s father, Joseph, however, was determined that his sons not enter the business world; he had amassed suf­ficient wealth to allow his sons to choose a future that did not have to lead to significant additional income. The reality was that if Kennedy had chosen a career other than politics, it would have meant going against the wishes of his strong-willed father. John Kennedy, from the time his older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed in action during World War II, became his father’s designated aspirant to high political office; JFK’s father, after the end of the war, planned to build “the greatest political dynasty of the age. . . one remaining son at a time.” Kennedy was easily elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1948 and to the Senate in 1952 and again in 1958. But his time in Congress was not fulfilling for either his or his father’s ambi­tions. During his fourteen years in Congress, Kennedy “failed to penetrate the inner circle.” The conservative Southern senators who controlled the Senate, in particular, “viewed him as too detached, independent, overrated, and overly ambitious.” Beginning in 1956, when he was almost selected as Adlai Stevenson’s vice presidential running mate, Kennedy set his eyes on being elected president of the United States in November 1960. As he pur­sued that objective, the candidate was described by one acute observer as a “charming, handsome, rich, young aristocrat.”1

In his years as a senator, Kennedy said little about space issues except in the context of the linkage between space launch vehicles and strategic mis­sile capabilities. That changed once he became the Democratic nominee for president in July 1960. The growing disparity in global prestige between the United States and the Soviet Union under the Eisenhower administration became a central theme of JFK’s campaign, and the fact that the United

States was trailing the Soviet Union in space achievement was frequently cited by Kennedy as very visible evidence of this disparity. Kennedy offered no specific views on future space activities during the campaign, however, and once he was declared the president-elect, he spent little time on space issues prior to his inauguration. This meant that Kennedy’s personal views and interests with respect to space, as differentiated from his campaign rhet­oric, remained largely unknown as he entered the White House.