Historian David Kaiser says the most exciting day of his life was JFK’s election

Historians in the News
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David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

Election night in 1960 remains, without question, the most exciting night of my entire life. Every nerve of my 13-year-old body was attuned to the results.

By 8:00 pm, JFK was opening up an early lead, carrying Connecticut and New York, and soon he was leading in Pennsylvania as well. His lead in the popular vote grew and grew, and eventually reached almost two million votes. But then it began to shrink as the Midwestern and far western states came in, and it turned into a cliff-hanger whose winner was not clear until about 10:00 AM the next morning.

Kennedy had won. I did not yet know what that was going to mean for me.

Kennedy had talked a great deal during the campaign about refurbishing America’s image around the world, and he had definite ideas of how to do so. When it came to selecting ambassadors, Kennedy did not simply reward big contributors. He looked for a previous record of public service, experience abroad, and the sense that they would ably represent him and his generation, especially among the emerging nations of the world — even in those he appointed from outside the Foreign Service.

My father, Philip Kaiser, who knew French and had represented the U.S. in the International Labor Organization under Truman, was chosen to be Ambassador to Senegal. I had had no idea that we might be going abroad as a result of the election, and to say that I was unhappy would be a gross understatement. It turned out, though, that I had a sympathetic listener in the White House.

On April 2, 1961, I brought the Washington Post into our Bethesda house and found a remarkable story on page one. John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist whom Kennedy had chosen as Ambassador to India, had mentioned to the President that one of his children, Peter, was especially unhappy about leaving his friends and his school to move to New Delhi. (My first thought, I must say, was that my own father would never have shared my feelings with the President.) Kennedy had responded with a personal letter to young Peter, saying that he knew how he felt because his own younger siblings had gone through the same thing more than 20 years earlier when their father was appointed Ambassador to Great Britain. But he knew, he said, that Peter enjoyed animals, and India was sure to offer many fascinating ones. Peter was only one of many children going abroad for the New Frontier, the President continued, and he liked to think of them “as junior Peace Corps,” a reference to the new agency he was then establishing. “You and your brothers will be helping your parents do a good job for our country and you will be helping yourselves by making many friends,” he said. “I a little wish I were going too,” he concluded in a handwritten postscript.

That letter meant a lot — and not only to Peter Galbraith. ...





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