Updated: 12 Dec 2012
Kennedy's Inaugural Address
A watershed moment in politics
Kennedy's inaugural address of 1961 was eloquent, and optimistic, but at the same time, vague. He focuses on international relations through most of the speech (more specifically, US/USSR relations), but no foreign nations are mentioned by name. The Cold War was in full swing then; relations with the USSR were strained, but were of the utmost importance to American leaders. Said Kennedy, as a request to the USSR: "...both sides [should] begin anew the quest for peace before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity..." I hear pressure from Khrushchev in his words. Kennedy sensed that the United States was precipitously close to nuclear war with the USSR; looking back, we really did come close to catastrophe.
What Kennedy said next is telling; his words outline just how far left the Democrat party has gone in the past 42 years: "We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed." When I read those words for the first time, alarms went off in my head. At first, I thought that this bold statement was made to appeal to Eisenhower voters — military folk, or those among him that favored strong armed forces. Kennedy mentioned military weakness at least twice in his oration, a sign that maybe he was genuinely concerned with the path the United States was taking. "...[C]ivility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof." Was this a thinly veiled jab at Khrushchev? Perhaps.
Kennedy's words at his inauguration could easily be applied to the current war on terrorism: "Let every nation know — whether it wishes us well or ill — that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." World War II was still a lingering memory for many people; Kennedy had grown up during the war. The peacetime expansion of the 1950s left America as the world's foremost superpower, but did not make us complacent. Kennedy above statement reflects not only America's cockiness and invincibility, but also our unrelenting work ethic.
The very ideas of a strong military and arms program that Kennedy preached were pushed by President Reagan in the 1980s to combat and finally end the Cold War. The only difference is that Kennedy was not unilaterally criticized for holding that view; Reagan was mocked (and hated) for the ways he dealt with the Soviets. Only in hindsight can we see how correct both presidents were.
What was acceptable for a Democrat to say in the 1960s is now standard policy for Republicans today. In the process, the meanings of the words "liberal" and "conservative" have changed. The former had a positive connotation. Now, many Democrats don't like to be described as such, and go for the more positive term "progressive". The latter has also changed; "conservative" now means what "moderate" meant half a century ago.
Kennedy's address focused too much on international relations (I do believe he was fond of the United Nations) and failed to mention the "common enemies" that existed in his own country. He described the enemies of man as "tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself" yet failed to mention one of the more pressing issues in the early 1960s — race relations and the injustices that existed in the south. Kennedy mentioned the "human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today..." yet failed to address the pressing issue of institutionalized segregation that afflicted many blacks. Kennedy did later address the issue of civil rights: his civil rights bill was not enacted during his presidency (Soukup 8) but ultimately came to fruition under Johnson. In fact, Johnson became fervently active in civil rights immediately after Kennedy's assassination. Before then, he was but a quiet supporter. (Soukup 8)
Kennedy also failed to mention the economic slump that the United States was currently experiencing, or the provisions that he would take to remedy it. I do realize that an inaugural address is not the time to state explicit policy proposals, but a mention of the "domestic enemies" would have bolstered his speech. Kennedy, in a later speech, did address the issue of tax reform, and recommended more tax cuts on personal and corporate income to "increase incentives and the availability of investment capital." (Kennedy, Remarks to the Economic Club of New York, 14 Dec 1962) He thought it was perfectly clear that the economy was hampered by restrictive tax rates. (Kennedy, Remarks to the Economic Club of New York, 14 Dec 1962)
The inaugural address was pivotal in the societal evolution of the '60s. Excerpts — like the following passage — have become priceless: "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans..." Kennedy represented this new generation, not only because of his age (the youngest man ever to be elected), but also because of his optimistic outlook of the future.
The Cold War
He called on both sides of the Cold War to use science for the betterment of man. "Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce." The USSR's oppressive Communist government had quelled much enthusiasm for American/Russian cooperation; however Kennedy's first request was partially realized, albeit posthumously, when American astronauts docked with Russian cosmonauts on their space station. United States/Russian relations have vastly improved since the Cold War ended — as evidenced superficially by Bush's friendship with Putin, and substantially by Russia's current economic prosperity and crude oil exports. The Cold War made even nonviolent endeavors, such as space exploration or medical technology, into a competition or race. Kennedy had the modesty to suggest that the two superpowers put their issues aside for the benefit of man. He was probably well aware that Russia's space program was ahead of the United States in its scope; it was only a matter of months before they launched the first man in space. (Morris 320)
In the closing moments of his address, Kennedy called on his generation to question the role of government and to take pride in personal responsibility and volunteerism. Like George W. Bush, Kennedy realized that much of a president's responsibility is defending the freedom of his people. He did not shrink from that responsibility; he welcomed it. Kennedy then challenged citizens to also defend freedom and assume responsibility: "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." Quite possibly the most oft-quoted excerpt from the address, this sentence, in a nutshell, is Kennedy's view of the role of centralized government: it is up to the people, the "new generation", not the government, to rid the country and the world of the "common enemies of man." Again, his words remind one of Reagan, or should it be the other way around? Despite ascending to power twenty years after Kennedy, Reagan was approximately six years his senior.
Kennedy's worldview, as represented in this speech, reflects an enthusiastic idealized portrait of life. Despite an impending Communist threat, racial upheaval, and a stagnant economy, he still believed that "the energy, the faith, the devotion we bring... will light our country and all who serve it." The address, in addition to sounding militarily strong, also emphasized cooperation, understanding and reconciliation with the USSR. "Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems [that] divide us." Above all, Kennedy stressed that international relations will indefinitely be a perpetual job. It seems that the address ends just as Kennedy was hitting his stride. If Kennedy were alive today, he would most likely find more in common with the Republican party — considering his tax cuts of 1961/62, his views of American interventionism, the proper role of government, personal responsibility, and military strength.
All quotations are from Kennedy's inaugural address, unless otherwise noted.
Kennedy, John F. Inaugural Address. Jan 20, 1961.
Kennedy, John F. Remarks to the Economic Club of New York, Dec 14, 1962.
Morris, Edmund. Dutch — a Memoir of Ronald Reagan. Random House: New York, 1999.
Soukup, Elise. "Civil Rights — Getting the Whole Loaf" Newsweek Magazine. Sept 29, 2003. p. 8.