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Top 5 Defining Moments of John F. Kennedy's Presidency

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Written by Matt Wende Looking back at 5 of the most important moments that defined John F. Kennedy's presidency and cemented his legacy as one of the greatest politicians ever to be elected to President of the United States. WatchMojo presents the top 5 moments of JFK's presidency. But what will be named the most iconic moment? The Cuban Missile Crisis, the integration of the University of Alabama, or his first and final inaugural address? Watch to find out! Watch on WatchMojo: To vote for what video we should produce next, check out the suggest page here: WatchMojo.commy/suggest.php

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He was a young, charismatic leader elected to office during one of the most turbulent times in American history. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 5 Defining Moments of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency.

For this list, we’re focusing on the most memorable and significant moments from JFK’s time in the Oval Office. These moments are not in chronological order, as we’re ranking them based on their lasting impact.

#5: Fostering the Space Program

Once the Soviets launched Sputnik and later became the first nation to send a human into space, the Cold War’s battle of ideologies manifested itself in the Space Race. Determined to see the United States triumph, President Kennedy issued a challenge to his government and the American People: put a man on the Moon and bring him back to Earth in one piece within ten years’ time. Later speaking at Rice University in Houston, Texas, JFK gave one of the most iconic speeches of his presidency to encourage support for the initiative. Ultimately, his challenge was met in 1969 when Apollo 11 successfully landed on the moon.

#4: Signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

By the end of WWII, nuclear weapons had become a persistent aspect of warfare, and the nuclear arms race encouraged the development of even more dangerous munitions. Kennedy himself had championed a ban on nuclear weapons testing, both as a Senator and during his Presidential campaign. However, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 proved definitively to both JFK and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the planet’s destruction due to nuclear war was all but inevitable as long as hostilities remained between the U.S. and the USSR. It took less than two weeks of negotiations for a treaty between the two countries to be signed on August 5th, 1963, banning nuclear testing everywhere but underground.

#3: Integrating the University of Alabama

Kennedy’s public support of Martin Luther King, Jr. was a deciding factor during his presidential campaign. Once in office, JFK’s administration made significant efforts to ensure the civil rights of African-Americans. Nonetheless, the racial segregation of schools remained an issue. Tensions boiled over in Alabama on June 11th, 1963, when Governor George Wallace made his so-called “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” attempting to prevent two black students from being admitted to UA. Kennedy responded by federalizing the Alabama National Guard, and Wallace was ordered to step aside. Kennedy then addressed the nation, stating that Civil Rights were as much a moral issue as a political one. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed such discrimination, and was a lasting legacy of Kennedy’s leadership.

#2: Handling the Cuban Missile Crisis

In October of 1962, it was confirmed to United States government officials that the Soviet Union had positioned nuclear weapons within Cuba, putting the entire continental United States at risk of a potential missile strike. On October 22nd, in an address to the nation, President Kennedy warned that unchecked aggression would lead to war, but his goal was a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He then deployed a military blockade to quarantine Cuba and prevent more weapons from being delivered, and demanded the existing weapons be dismantled. Through diplomatic negotiations, the Americans and Soviets reached an agreement, with both countries dismantling the offensive nuclear missiles in question.

#1: Delivering His Inaugural Address

After winning one of the tightest elections in almost half a century, John F. Kennedy appeared before a nation divided by civil rights issues and fearful of a foreign superpower to deliver his first speech as President of the United States on January 20th, 1961. In what was the first inaugural address televised in color, President Kennedy spoke directly to the American public, calling for unity within the country, and asked international allies for cooperation towards peace. Ultimately, the sentiment that closed out JFK’s inaugural speech has since come to define not only John F. Kennedy’s presidency, but also his legacy. [“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”]

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