John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963) politician
The election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic of Irish descent, as president in 1960 marked both an ethnic victory—80 percent of both Catholics and Jews voted for him, but only 38 percent of Protestants—and the beginning of the end of the old age of European immigration. During his two-anda-half years in office (1961–63), Kennedy promoted an open immigration policy, setting the stage for the dramatic policy shift embodied in the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965).
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, to businessman Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, he enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege, attending Choate School and Harvard University. He joined the U.S. Navy in September 1941 and was decorated for heroism after the sinking of his patrol torpedo boat (PT 109) in the South Pacific in August 1943. Kennedy served as a U.S. representative (1947–53) and U.S. senator (1953–61). Though a staunch Democrat, he often sided with conservatives in matters of foreign policy, rejecting his father’s noted isolationism. His book A Nation of Immigrants (1958) promoted immigration reform, suggesting that immigrants would strengthen the nation. After a dramatic series of televised presidential debates in 1960, the young and vigorous Kennedy was narrowly elected president, defeating Republican Richard Nixon by only 119,450 votes out of almost 69 million cast. Vowing to lead “without regard to outside religious pressure,” Kennedy’s conduct as president demonstrated that Roman Catholics, who mainstream Protestants feared would take their “orders” from Rome, could loyally integrate their faith and politics.
Kennedy’s aggressive foreign policy led to an increased commitment to displaced persons and refugees. He followed President Dwight Eisenhower’s policy of paroling refugees under the extending voluntary departure (EVD) provisions of the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 (exempting them from immigration quotas) and established the Cuban Refugee Program (February 3, 1961), which provided a wide range of social services to Cuban immigrants, including health care and subsidized educational loans. Kennedy urged that the program be understood “as an immediate expression of the firm desire of the people of the United States to be of tangible assistance to the refugees until such time as better circumstances enable them to return.” Before Cuba’s Communist leader, Fidel Castro, closed the door in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis (October 1962), 62,500 Cubans were paroled into the United States under the program. In 1962, Kennedy also paroled some 15,000 Chinese in the wake of an ongoing famine in southern China. Kennedy’s actions reflected both the international pressures of the cold war and his commitment to humanitarianism as a tool of international diplomacy. In 1963, he sent an immigration reform proposal to Congress, recommending that the quota system be phased out, that no country receive more than 10 percent of allotted visas, and that a seven-person immigration board be established to advise the president on immigration but no action was taken on the measure before Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.