Born in 1943 in Denver, Colorado, John Kerry was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984 and was re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002 and 2008. While serving in the Senate, he supported free trade, expansive U.S. foreign and military policy, investment in education and environmental protection. In 2004, Kerry lost the presidential election to George W. Bush. He became U.S. secretary of state under President Barack Obama in 2013.
Born on December 11, 1943, in Denver, Colorado, John Forbes Kerry spent much of his childhood living abroad. His father Richard worked in the foreign service. Kerry and his three siblings were raised in the Catholic faith, and he even served as an altar boy for a time.
During his teens, Kerry attended St. Paul's, an elite boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. He then went on to study political science at Yale University. After completing his bachelor's degree in 1966, Kerry volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy. He fought in the Vietnam War as a gunboat officer. Proving to be a brave and valiant soldier, he earned several military honors, including the Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat V (for valor) and three Purple Hearts.
Profoundly affected by his wartime experiences, Kerry worked to support other veterans after returning home in the late 1960s. He co-founded Vietnam Veterans of America and became a spokesperson for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In 1971, Kerry spoke to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the conflict.
In the Senate
Kerry made his first bid for public office in 1972, but he failed in his attempted run for Congress. Kerry then pursued a law career, graduating in 1976 from Boston College Law School and subsequently working in public service for a time as assistant district attorney of Middlesex County in Massachusetts.
After a few years in private practice, Kerry assumed his first political position in 1982. He served as the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts under Michael Dukakis. Kerry soon moved on to the national stage, winning one of Massachusetts' Senate seats in 1984. He was reelected in 1990, 1996, 2002 and 2008.
While serving in the Senate, Kerry earned a reputation as a left-of-center legislator. He supported free trade, expansive U.S. foreign and military policy, investment in education, environmental protection and growth of the hi-tech New Economy. He also continued his work on behalf of veterans, leading a Senate committee to ensure that there were no POWs left in Vietnam.
In 2004, Kerry won the Democratic nomination for president, focusing much of his campaign efforts on criticizing President George W. Bush. Kerry opposed Bush's foreign policy, particularly in its handling of the Iraqi conflict. Though Kerry voted to give the president authority to wage war in Iraq, he later voted against an $87 billion aid package for the country amidst back and forth politicking.
In July, Kerry chose North Carolina senator and former trial lawyer John Edwards as his running mate. Later that month, Kerry and Edwards were joined by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Madeleine Albright and others at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In November 2004, after a hard-fought and often bitter campaign, Kerry conceded the presidential election to incumbent George W. Bush.
Secretary of State
After his failed presidential bid, Kerry continued to be a strong presence in the U.S. Senate. He became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, serving in that capacity for several years. In 2011, Kerry was asked to help sort out the nation's fiscal problems as one of the 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.
In December 2012, President Barack Obama nominated Kerry to be his next secretary of state, succeeding Hillary Clinton. Obama considered Kerry to be the ideal candidate for the job because of his decades of political experience. "John's played a central role in every major foreign policy debate for nearly 30 years," Obama said in a press conference.
Kerry's nomination was approved by the vast majority of the Senate, with a 94 to 3 vote, on January 29, 2013. Fellow Democrat Senator Bob Menendez stated, "Senator Kerry will need no introduction to the world's political and military leaders and will begin day one fully conversant not only with the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy but able to act on a multitude of international stages."
One of Kerry's great challenges as secretary of state has been the conflict in Syria between rebels and the government led by Bashar al-Assad. In late August 2013, he confirmed that chemical weapons had been used on civilians by al-Assad's forces. The use of these weapons "defies any code of morality," Kerry said in a press conference. "The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity." Kerry stated that President Obama believes that the Syrian government must be held accountable for this brutal and senseless act.
Following Obama's announcement in regards to the likelihood of a strike on Syria by the U.S., Russia—among other nations—agreed to negotiate a plan to have Syria ultimately destroy its chemical weapons. Kerry made an announcement during a joint press conference with Russian diplomat Sergey Lavrov in September 2013, saying that the negotiations for a deal with Syria were underway, and while there were many expectations within the agreement, it was still a solution that he believed could be reached. Kerry also stated, however, that the U.S. taking military action against Syria was still an option on the table at the time. Over the following year, portions of the country fell increasingly under the sway of the Islamic terrorist group ISIS, with the U.S. engaging in bomb strikes against targets affiliated with the organization.
In September 2016 Kerry announced that the U.S. and Russia had come to a ceasefire in Syria, which the Syrian regime also supported. The deal would prevent Bashar al-Assad's air force from attacking the opposition, which would help lessen civilian casualties and the migrant flow crisis.
In September 2013, Kerry also met the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, marking the first time in years that high-ranking officials from the two countries had engaged in talks. This move, along with letters exchanged between President Obama and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani, led to a possible thawing in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Kerry's diplomatic efforts with Iran began to pay off in November 2013. The United States reached an agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program. In this deal, Iran pledged to curb its uranium enrichment program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. On the television program State of the Union, Kerry answered critics, including Israel, who did not support the accord. "We believe very strongly that because the Iranian nuclear program is actually set backwards and is actually locked into place in critical places, that that is better for Israel than if you were just continuing to go down the road and they rush towards a nuclear weapon," he said.
In April 2015, Kerry-led talks between Iran and several international governments finally led to a framework agreement built to constrict Iran's nuclear capabilities. With the framework comes a tough stance on Iranian nuclear activities and a required level of demanding inspections. The framework was slated be formalized in a sanctioned accord by June 30, but with endless debate among international parties about the tentative agreement, several deadline extensions were created during the final talks in Vienna.
While Kerry was hopeful, the former senator seemed to know the realities at play. “If it’s not what we believe we agreed to and if it’s not what we have to have, we won’t sign a deal,” he has said. Complicating the matter are revelations that Iran is providing military support to rebels in Yemen. Kerry has said of the situation in an interview with PBS NewsHour, "Iran needs to recognize that the U.S. is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized, or while people engage in overt warfare across lines—international boundaries—in other countries."
On July 14, 2015, Kerry and negotiators were able to come to an agreement: Economic sanctions previously placed on Iran were lifted in exchange for the country curbing its development of nuclear weapons. A limited ban was also imposed on the acquisition of ballistic missiles and other forms of weaponry. Yet major controversy has been generated, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly condemning the agreement and Congressional Republicans back in the U.S. planning to challenge the accord.
In 1995, Kerry married Teresa Heinz, who is the widow of former Senator John Heinz and heir to the Heinz fortune. Kerry has two daughters from a previous marriage, Alexandra and Vanessa. Teresa has three sons, John, Andre and Christopher. The couple lives in Boston.
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