Essential Books on John F. Kennedy
There are countless books on John F. Kennedy, and it comes with good reason, aside from being the youngest man elected President of the United States, when he was hardly past his first thousand days in office, JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, becoming also the youngest President to die.
“Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past – let us accept our own responsibility for the future,” he remarked.
In order to get to the bottom of what inspired one of America’s most consequential figures to the height of political power, we’ve compiled a list of the 15 best books on John F. Kennedy.
An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek
An Unfinished Life describes the birth of the Kennedy dynasty, the complexity of Jack’s early years, and the mixture of adulation and resentment that tangled his relationships with his mother, Rose, and his father, Joseph. Forced into the shadow of his older brother, Joe, Jack struggled to find a place for himself until World War II, when he became a national hero and launched his career. Dallek reveals for the first time the full story of Kennedy’s wartime actions and the true details of how Joe was killed, opening the door to Jack’s ascendancy.
Here is the gripping story of Jack’s transformation from an awkward speaker into a brilliant politician with irresistible charm. The book carries us from Jack’s work as a senator from Massachusetts, through the fiercely contested 1960 campaign against Nixon, and takes us on to the White House itself.
This hallmark among books on John F. Kennedy also discloses for the very first time that he was far sicker than we ever knew. While laboring to present an image of robust good health, Kennedy was secretly in and out of hospitals throughout his life, so ill that he was administered last rites on several different occasions. Here is a vivid portrait of a man who, because he knew how close he was to death, lived as much as he could – sometimes hurting others in the process.
JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century by Fredrik Logevall
By the time of his assassination in 1963, John F. Kennedy stood at the helm of the greatest power the world had ever seen, a booming American nation that he had steered through some of the most perilous diplomatic standoffs of the Cold War. Born in 1917 to a striving Irish American family that had become among Boston’s wealthiest, Kennedy knew political ambition from an early age, and his meteoric rise to become the youngest elected president cemented his status as one of the most mythologized figures in American history. And while hagiographic portrayals of his dazzling charisma, reports of his extramarital affairs, and disagreements over his political legacy have come and gone in the decades since his untimely death, these accounts all fail to capture the full person.
Beckoned by this gap in our historical knowledge, Fredrik Logevall has spent much of the last decade searching for the “real” JFK. The result of this prodigious effort is a sweeping two-volume biography that properly contextualizes Kennedy amidst the roiling American Century.
This volume spans the first thirty-nine years of JFK’s life – from birth through his decision to run for president – to reveal his early relationships, his formative experiences during World War II, his ideas, his writings, his political aspirations. In examining these pre-White House years, Logevall shows us a more serious, independently-minded Kennedy than we’ve previously known, whose distinct international sensibility would prepare him to enter national politics at a critical moment in modern U.S. history.
A Thousand Days by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy throughout his presidency – from the long and grueling campaign to Kennedy’s tragic and unexpected assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald. In A Thousand Days, Schlesinger combines intimate knowledge as one of President Kennedy’s inner circle with sweeping research and historic context to provide a look at one of the most legendary presidential administrations in American history.
From JFK’s battle with Nixon during the 1960 election, to the seemingly charmed inaugural days, to international conflict and domestic unrest, Schlesinger takes a close and fond, but unsparing, look at Kennedy’s tenure in the White House, covering well-known successes, like his involvement in the Civil Rights movement; infamous humiliations, like the Bay of Pigs; and often overlooked struggles, like the Skybolt missile mix-up, alike.
The House of Kennedy by James Patterson
The Kennedys have always been a family of charismatic adventurers, raised to take risks and excel, living by the dual family mottos: “To whom much is given, much is expected” and “Win at all costs.” And they do – but at a price.
Across decades and generations, the Kennedys have occupied a unique place in the American imagination: charmed, cursed, at once familiar and unknowable. The House of Kennedy is a revealing, fascinating account of America’s most storied family, as told by America’s most trusted storyteller.
Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy
During 1954-55, Kennedy, then a junior senator from the state of Massachusetts, profiled eight American patriots, mainly United States Senators, who at crucial moments in our nation’s history, revealed a special sort of greatness: men who disregarded dreadful consequences to their public and private lives to do that one thing which seemed right in itself. They were men of various political and regional allegiances – their one overriding loyalty was to the United States.
Courage such as these men shared, Kennedy makes clear, is central to all morality – a man does what he must in spite of personal consequences – and these exciting stories suggest that, without in the least disparaging the courage with which men die, we should not overlook the true greatness adorning those acts of courage with which men must live.
John F. Kennedy and PT-109 by Richard Tregaskis
In the early morning hours of August 2, 1943, US Navy motor torpedo boat PT-109 patrolled the still, black waters of Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands. Suddenly, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri loomed out of the darkness, bearing directly down on the smaller ship. There was no time to get out of the way – the destroyer crashed into PT-109, slicing the mosquito boat in two and setting the shark-infested waters aflame with burning gasoline. Ten surviving crewmembers and their young skipper clung to the wreckage, their odds of survival growing slimmer by the instant.
Lt. John F. Kennedy’s first command was an unqualified disaster. Yet over the next three days, the privileged son of a Boston multimillionaire displayed extraordinary courage, stamina, and leadership as he risked his life to shepherd his crew to safety and coordinate a daring rescue mission deep in enemy territory. Lieutenant Kennedy earned a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart, and the story of PT-109 captured the public’s imagination and helped propel the battle-tested veteran all the way to the White House.
The Kennedy Brothers by Richard D. Mahoney
Eight years apart in age, John F. and Robert F. Kennedy were wildly different in temperament and sensibility. Jack was the leader – charismatic, ironic, capable of extraordinary growth and reach, yet also reckless. Bobby was the fearless, hardworking Boy Scout – unafraid of dirty work and ruthless about protecting his brother and destroying their enemies. Jack, it was said, was the first Irish Brahmin, Bobby the last Irish Puritan.
Richard D. Mahoney demonstrates with brilliant clarity in this impeccably documented, magisterial book, how the Kennedys lived their days of power in dangerous, trackless territory. Mahoney gives us the Kennedy days and years as we have never before seen them. Here are Jack and Bobby in all their hubris and humanity, youthfulness and fatalism.
Two Days in June by Andrew Cohen
On two consecutive days in June 1963, in two lyrical speeches, John F. Kennedy pivots dramatically and boldly on the two greatest issues of his time: nuclear arms and civil rights. In language unheard in lily white, Cold War America, he appeals to Americans to see both the Russians and the “Negroes” as human beings. His speech on June 10 leads to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963; his speech on June 11 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Based on new material – hours of recently uncovered documentary film shot in the White House and the Justice Department, fresh interviews, and a rediscovered draft speech – Two Days in June captures Kennedy at the high noon of his presidency in startling, granular detail.
Moment by moment, JFK’s feverish forty-eight hours unspools in cinematic clarity as he addresses “peace and freedom.” In the tick-tock of the American presidency, we see Kennedy facing down George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama, talking obsessively about sex and politics at a dinner party in Georgetown, recoiling at a newspaper photograph of a burning monk in Saigon, planning a secret diplomatic mission to Indonesia, and reeling from the midnight murder of Medgar Evers.
Prelude to Leadership by John F. Kennedy
One of the few books by John F. Kennedy, Prelude to Leadership is his private diary from when he was a 28-year-old reporter in Europe. It offers a short yet intimate look into the mind of the man who was to become the 35th President of the United States.
As World War II was ending and the Cold War was just beginning, a young naval hero decommissioned before war’s end because of his crippling injuries, traveled through a devastated Europe. During the trip, John F. Kennedy kept a diary, never before published. As the diary makes clear, that European trip was a turning point in the future President’s life. It was on this trip that Kennedy first confronted the “long twilight struggle” for the preservation of Western freedom that would define his Presidency.
Counselor by Ted Sorensen
Sorensen returns to January 1953, when he and the freshman senator from Massachusetts began their extraordinary professional and personal relationship. Rising from legislative assistant to speechwriter and advisor, the young lawyer from Nebraska worked closely with JFK on his most important speeches, as well as his book Profiles in Courage.
In this necessary installment among books on John F. Kennedy, Sorenson describes in thrilling detail his experience advising the President during some of the most crucial days of his term, from the decision to go to the moon to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when JFK requested that the thirty-four-year-old Sorensen draft the key letter to Khrushchev at the most critical point of the world’s first nuclear confrontation.
After Kennedy was assassinated, Sorensen stayed with President Johnson for a few months before leaving to write a biography of JFK. In 1968 he returned to Washington to help run Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Through it all, Sorensen never lost sight of the ideals that brought him to Washington and to the White House, working tirelessly to promote and defend free, peaceful societies.
Once Upon A Secret by Mimi Alford
In the summer of 1962, nineteen-year-old Mimi Beardsley arrived in Washington, D.C., to begin an internship in the White House press office. After just three days on the job, the privileged but sheltered young woman was presented to the President himself. Almost immediately, the two began an affair that would continue for the next eighteen months.
Emotionally unprepared to counter the President’s charisma and power, Mimi was also ill-equipped to handle the feelings of isolation that would follow as she fell into the double life of a college student who was also the secret lover of the most powerful man in the world. After the President’s assassination in Dallas, she grieved alone, locked her secret away, and tried to start a new life, only to be blindsided by her past.
JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglass
At the height of the Cold War, JFK risked committing the greatest crime in human history: starting a nuclear war. Horrified by the specter of nuclear annihilation, Kennedy gradually turned away from his long-held Cold Warrior beliefs and toward a policy of lasting peace. But to the military and intelligence agencies in the United States, who were committed to winning the Cold War at any cost, Kennedy’s change of heart was a direct threat to their power and influence. Once these dark “Unspeakable” forces recognized that Kennedy’s interests were in direct opposition to their own, they tagged him as a dangerous traitor, plotted his assassination, and orchestrated the subsequent cover-up.
Douglass takes readers into the Oval Office during the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, along on the strange journey of Lee Harvey Oswald and his shadowy handlers, and to the winding road in Dallas where an ambush awaited the President’s motorcade. As Douglass convincingly documents, at every step along the way these forces of the Unspeakable were present, moving people like pawns on a chessboard to promote a dangerous and deadly agenda.
The Death of a President by William Manchester
As the world still reeled from the tragic and historic events of November 22, 1963, William Manchester set out, at the request of the Kennedy family, to create a detailed, authoritative record of the days immediately preceding and following President John F. Kennedy’s death.
Through hundreds of interviews, abundant travel and firsthand observation, and with unique access to the proceedings of the Warren Commission, Manchester conducted an exhaustive historical investigation, accumulating forty-five volumes of documents, exhibits, and transcribed tapes. His ultimate objective – to set down as a whole the national and personal tragedy that was JFK’s assassination – is brilliantly achieved in this galvanizing narrative, a book universally acclaimed as a landmark work of modern history.
JFK: Reckless Youth by Nigel Hamilton
In retelling JFK’s extraordinary life story, Nigel Hamilton has finally succeeded in getting beyond the many accretions and distortions of recent years. Here at last – often in JFK’s own inimitable words – is the real John F. Kennedy, at once roguish and intelligent, reckless and yet possessing fine judgment. Based on a wealth of never previously published letters and documents, and access to more than two thousand interviews, this gem among books on John F. Kennedy paints a profoundly touching portrait of the tormented, fun-loving, deeply amorous, and yet ambitious youth who grew up to become our thirty-fifth President.
Mary’s Mosaic by Peter Janney
Who really murdered Mary Pinchot Meyer in the fall of 1964? Why was there a mad rush by CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton to locate and confiscate her diary? What in that diary was so explosive? Had Mary Meyer finally put together the intricate pieces of a plan to assassinate her lover, President Kennedy, with the trail ultimately leading to the CIA? And was it mere coincidence that Mary was killed less than three weeks after the release of the Warren Commission report?
These are the questions that author Peter Janney finally answers in a way that no one else ever has. In doing so, he may well have solved Washington’s most famous unsolved murder. Based on years of painstaking research and interviews, much of it revealed here for the first time, the author traces the key events and influences in the life of Mary Pinchot Meyer, including her first meeting with Jack Kennedy at the Choate School in 1936; her explorations with psychedelic drugs; her relationship with Timothy Leary; and finally how she supported the president as he turned away from the Cold War toward the pursuit of world peace.
The Man Who Killed Kennedy by Roger Stone
Consummate political insider Roger Stone makes a compelling case that Lyndon Baines Johnson had the motive, means, and opportunity to orchestrate the murder of John F. Kennedy. Stone maps out the case that Johnson blackmailed his way onto the ticket in 1960 and was being dumped in 1964 to face prosecution for corruption at the hands of his nemesis attorney, Robert Kennedy. Stone uses fingerprint evidence and testimony to prove Kennedy was shot by a long-time Johnson hitman – not Lee Harvey Oswald.
Johnson would use power from his personal connections in Texas, from the criminal underworld, and from the United States government to escape an untimely end in politics and to seize even greater power. Here, in one of the most popular books on John F. Kennedy and his assassination, you will find out how and why he did it.
On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison
On March 1, 1967, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison shocked the world by arresting local businessman Clay Shaw for conspiracy to murder the president. His alleged co-conspirator, David Ferrie, had been found dead a few days before. Garrison charged that elements of the United States government, in particular the CIA, were behind the crime.
From the beginning, his probe was virulently attacked in the media and violently denounced from Washington. His office was infiltrated and sabotaged, and witnesses disappeared and died strangely. Eventually, Shaw was acquitted after the briefest of jury deliberation and the only prosecution ever brought for the murder of President Kennedy was over.
On the Trail of the Assassins – the primary source material for Oliver Stone’s hit film JFK – is Garrison’s own account of his investigations into the background of Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of President Kennedy, and his prosecution of Clay Shaw in the trial that followed.
if you enjoyed this guide to essential books on John F. Kennedy, check out our list of The 10 Best Books on President Franklin D. Roosevelt!