Turning Points
Ideas from the National Archives for National History Day

Resources at the
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

The 1960 Debates

"It was TV more than anything else that turned the tide," John F. Kennedy observed after his narrow election victory over Richard M. Nixon. Studies would later show that of the four million voters who made up their minds as a result of the presidential debates, three million voted for JFK. Videotapes of the debates can be viewed in the audiovisual archives research room at the John F. Kennedy Library. Audiotapes as well as transcripts of all four Kennedy-Nixon debates will soon be available on the Kennedy Library web site.

Leaders in the Struggle for Civil Rights

Though he received strong support from black voters in the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy moved cautiously in trying to address problems of racial discrimination in the United States during the first two years of his presidency. But a series of civil rights demonstrations and crises prompted JFK to take a more active stance and to introduce comprehensive new legislation in 1963. Messages sent to the President and members of his administration by civil rights leaders document the intensifying struggle for freedom and justice during the Kennedy years. In the archives of the John F. Kennedy Library are letters and telegrams from key figures including: Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, and John Lewis. Digital copies of communications from these seven leaders will soon be available on the Kennedy Library web site.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

When American U-2 spy planes photographed Soviet missile sites under construction in Cuba during October of 1962, a drama began to unfold that would bring the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis was perhaps the greatest test of John F. Kennedy's presidency and while he and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the U.S.S.R. were able to achieve a peaceful resolution, the crisis had a number of far-reaching historical consequences. The Kennedy Library has a significant body of documentary evidence on this event, including: aerial photographs of the missile sites; memoranda to the President by key officials such as Theodore Sorensen, Adlai Stevenson, and McGeorge Bundy; correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev; audio tapes and written transcripts of meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council; President Kennedy's public statements and proclamations; and oral history interviews. Copies of select documents will soon be available on the Kennedy Library web site.

Americans in Space

Against the backdrop of the Cold War conflict, a new kind of rivalry took shape in the early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Russians appeared to be ahead in the so-called "race for space" as they followed their launching of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 with the history-making flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in April, 1961. The following month, Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut in space in a fifteen minute sub-orbital flight. Three weeks later, President Kennedy called for the landing of an American on the moon by the end of the decade as he sought a major mobilization of the nation's resources to catch up with and surpass the U.S.S.R. in the space race. By February 20, 1962, when John Glenn returned safely after orbiting the earth three times aboard Friendship 7, the U.S. space program clearly had moved into high gear. Documentary materials on this topic from the Kennedy Library include speeches and remarks by the President; memoranda and correspondence; NASA press releases; photographs; and oral history interviews. Copies of select documents will soon be available on the Kennedy Library web site.

A Death in the Family: November 22, 1963

The date of President Kennedy's assassination is indelibly imprinted on the memories of millions of people, and it is emphatically one of the turning points in recent history. The question of how the times might have been different if Kennedy had lived and been elected to a second term can be a fascinating one to explore. For those interested in the event itself, an enormous body of evidence can be found in the JFK Assassination Records Collection assembled by the National Archives and Records Administration. Another thing to consider about Nov. 22, 1963 (and the days immediately following through the state funeral) is that with modern telecommunication, this was perhaps the first event in history to be experienced almost simultaneously, and with great personal impact, by people around the globe. To read some of the thousands upon thousands of individual expressions of grief and sympathy sent to Mrs. Kennedy, her children, and others close to the late President, is to recognize the extent to which people everywhere experienced JFK's loss as though it were that of a member of their own family. A selection of condolence letters from adults and children will soon be available on the Kennedy Library web site.

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