Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access



First Advisor

Brian Peterson




JFK in Africa, Kennedy, Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Egypt, South Africa, Portugal, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, US State Department, Peace Corps, Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Emperor Halie Selassie


John F. Kennedy's polarizing relationship with newly independent African leaders in the middle of the 20th century is one of the lesser-told stories of his career. From an early age, Kennedy developed a strong compassion for the underprivileged and oppressed. In tandem, he became staunchly pragmatic regarding political decisions. This thesis argues that Kennedy's pragmatic Cold War agenda usually overruled his genuine moral compassion to assist newly-independent African countries. Each chapter analyzes an aspect of Kennedy's moral approach towards building relationships with African nationalists, only to show that his fiercely pragmatic Cold War policy prevented these relationships from reaching their full potential. Ultimately, Kennedy's words spoke louder than his actions when it came to his courting of newly-independent African nations and their leaders. His Cold War agenda dictated the final say in every decision he made, holding him back from enacting long-term change in a continent possessing tremendous potential. This thesis consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction analyzes how certain experiences during John F. Kennedy's upbringing instilled genuine moral compassion in him, while also considering other early experiences that made him fiercely pragmatic. Chapter 1 contrasts JFK with his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unlike Kennedy, Eisenhower paid little heed to Africa, giving Kennedy an automatic advantage in building relationships. At times, he made active attempts to avoid meeting with African nationalists. Not used to genuine attention from Western powers, African nationalists greatly appreciated Kennedy's interest in their cause. Chapter 2 discusses Kennedy's methods of courting African nationalists. The relationships he cultivated through personal connections, welcome receptions, and charm eased the deployment of numerous aid programs to African nations. However, Kennedy's progressive approach to African countries and the potential for long-term change was stymied by contradictions from his Cold War agenda. This becomes clear upon analysis of Kennedy's policy towards South Africa and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Guinea-Bissau. Kennedy supported white minority rule in those countries because of his Cold War agenda - Portugal was a NATO ally in possession of the Azores Air Force Base, and South Africa was a stalwart against communism in a key geographic location. Chapter 3 is an in-depth analysis of the most famous aid program Kennedy deployed to Africa: the Peace Corps. Introduced two months into JFK's presidency, the Peace Corps fulfilled the challenge laid out in Kennedy's Inaugural Address: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." However, much like the rest of Kennedy's rhetoric on Africa, there was much positivity and theoretical growth promoted by the Peace Corps, yet few lasting changes achieved. Chapter 4 breaks down the similarities between Kennedy's approach to courting African nationalists and his response to domestic civil rights issues. Kennedy used his success with courting African nationalists to gain support from civil rights leaders, and vice versa. However, Kennedy's lack of response to civil rights crises and hesitancy to meet with civil rights leaders showed that, once again, he fell short of his potential to enact lasting change. Finally, the conclusion ties these four events together and references Robert F. Kennedy's 1966 speech in South Africa. This speech highlights the vision for real change Kennedy wanted to fulfill in Africa if he hadn't given precedence to his Cold War agenda.



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In Copyright - Educational Use Permitted.