John F. Kennedy was born on 29 May 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts, the second son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a self-made multimillionaire who headed the Securities and Exchange Commission under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In 1937, Roosevelt made the elder Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain, which marked a significant social breakthrough for an Irish Catholic. (In their native Boston, the Kennedys had sometimes been snubbed by Brahmin society, and Kennedy had moved the family to New York partly as a result of it.) To Roosevelt's dismay, his ambassador sympathized with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies toward Nazi Germany. Neither Roosevelt nor Kennedy had ever really liked one another, but until this point they had successfully used one another for their own purposes. But after Kennedy took Chamberlain's side, the two men fell out permanently, and Roosevelt refused even to make use of Kennedy's very considerable business and managerial skills during the war.
John Kennedy, or Jack, as he was known, grew up in a home where political issues were frequently discussed and sometimes debated. His father's strong views evidently influenced his older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., more than they did him. All the Kennedy children, but particularly the four boys—Joseph, John, Robert, and Edward—were brought up with a strong sense of noblesse oblige and with little or no interest in enhancing their own very considerable financial fortunes. (Their father set up trust funds for each of them, which made them financially independent when they reached maturity.) Public service, not private gain, was the ideal instilled in all the Kennedy children. When their private fortunes or family connections could enhance their ability to perform public service, as in getting their views known or in winning elections, for example, the Kennedy boys gladly used them.
Jack Kennedy was a sickly child and adolescent. "When we were growing up together," his younger brother Robert later recalled, "we used to laugh about the great risk a mosquito took in biting Jack Kennedy—with some of his blood the mosquito was almost sure to die." During his illnesses, he became an avid reader and also a fatalist. He never let his frail condition keep him from throwing himself headlong into his family's fierce athletic competitions. At Choate, a predominantly Protestant boarding school in Connecticut, he was an average student, though one who, his teachers believed, performed at less than his potential. His peers liked him for his wit and cleverness, and he proved adept at winning friends. He was admired not for his accomplishments, a teacher later observed, but for his personality. His roommate once noted that he was the only boy who read The New York Times every day from front to back. To avoid competing further with his older brother, Joseph, who had also been at Choate, he enrolled at Princeton, instead of Harvard, where his brother was already a campus star. But he became ill once again and dropped out. He enrolled at Harvard the following year.
In college, Kennedy for the most part showed a greater dedication to enjoying himself socially than he did to developing his mind. Once again he was popular and made lasting friends. Once again he suffered from impaired health, including a back injury sustained in playing football. Although he had suffered from backaches even as a child, this injury probably marked the beginning of a chronically bad back. He did have a lively interest in political issues, though he did not have the strongly fixed views of many of his contemporaries, such as his older brother, an isolationist who became a delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention and opposed Roosevelt's nomination for a third term.
Using the access to European leaders afforded by his father's position, and with the assistance of hired secretarial help, Kennedy wrote a senior thesis called "Appeasement at Munich." It was awarded second highest honors. Although it sought to explain how Chamberlain had no alternative to appeasement, and in that respect reflected his father's views, it showed Jack's independence by regarding Winston Churchill as an accurate prophet and by emphasizing the importance of American military preparedness. With his father's assistance and connections, the thesis was quickly transformed into a book, Why England Slept , a title inspired by Churchill's own While England Slept . It received favorable reviews in the summer of 1940, as war clouds gathered in Europe, and it became a best-seller. By the following spring, more than eighty thousand copies had been sold.
During the war, Kennedy commanded a PT boat in the South Pacific. While on patrol one night, the small boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer traveling at high speed. Two of the crewmen were killed. Kennedy demonstrated leadership, courage, and stamina in helping to save the eleven survivors. A strong swimmer, he towed a badly burned crew-man several miles to a tiny island. Two days later he towed him again to a larger island. The group was finally rescued when they found a pair of natives who took a message to an Australian coast-watcher. The rescue attracted newspaper attention not only for its own sake but because of the identity of the skipper. John Hersey, a journalist, wrote the first long account in the New Yorker , which was followed by an abridged version in Reader's Digest and eventually by other books and a movie. Kennedy's wartime heroism became a basis and then a staple of his political career. One of Kennedy's charms was that though he never prevented his political supporters from exploiting his heroism, he never personally aggrandized his role either. In a characteristic remark, he explained, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat."
After his rescue, Kennedy commanded another boat and saw some additional action, but his war career was soon cut short by illness and his bad back. After the war, he became a celebrity correspondent for Hearst newspapers at the United Nations charter conference and during the British elections of 1945. He also observed the Potsdam summit conference. But he decided he would rather shape history than report it. His brother Joe, whose political ambitions had been more certain, had died a hero's death in the war. His father later claimed to have been happily surprised by his second son's interest in running for office, and he used his money and contacts to help him get started.