A skeptical public, a looming enemy, and a D.C. winter; On January 20, 1961, Kennedy faced a daunting task. He had won the Presidency of the United States by a fraction — a mere 12,000 votes. He was a Catholic, rich kid, and now he had to fill the shoes of Dwight Eisenhower, the man who won the Second World War. The presidency itself is an unfathomable challenge, and it begins with a tremendous responsibility: the inaugural. History’s cold eye judges these speeches, and they often serve as a focal point in an administration. Thus, Kennedy’s task was great, and so was his speech. His oratory refocused the American system on its founding principles, while expanding them to confront the current crises. With a keen awareness of his audience and breathtaking use of prose, he crafted a concise, but effective speech. More than anything, he set the tone for his administration, not as lofty idealism, but as purposeful realism.
Context of the Inaugural
Aristotle defined the art of rhetoric as the ability to see what is possibly persuasive. This demands an understanding of the context and the audience of a speech. Our rhetorical analysis will thus begin with a discussion of the circumstances, broad and immediate, surrounding Kennedy’s inaugural address.
In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy declared his intentions to seek the presidency. Aside from southern opposition from Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy enjoyed general success in the primary season, though his Catholicism and youth forced a vigorous campaign. After the convention, he tapped Johnson for the bottom of the ticket, adding age and southern support to his campaign. In the general election, they faced the sitting Vice-President, Republican Richard Nixon. The Democrats exploited Nixon’s association with President Eisenhower and tagged him with negligence in curbing the U.S.S.R.’s growth economically and militarily. The U.S.S.R. had grown dramatically and was poised to eclipse the United States on the international stage, while growing increasingly hostile.
Republicans fought back with questions of Kennedy’s Catholicism. Eventually, he had to make a public statement, distancing himself from the Church of Rome: “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who also happens to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters — and the Church does not speak for me.” This nonsectarian Christianity, as long as his youth, shaped his character greatly in the public eye. Political posturing helped, but his religious affiliation still plagued Kennedy in the election, keeping the polls close.
Inevitably, national security trumped religious discrimination. By chastising the growing “missile gap” — the difference in numbers between the U.S.S.R. and America in ballistic missiles — Kennedy garnered enough support to ensure a — albeit small — victory. On November 8, 1960, he won the general election by one tenth of one percent. This victory was small; it was far short of any governable mandate. Thus, Kennedy had considerable work to do to capture public trust and support to implement his New Frontier agenda, a set of domestic policies emphasizing government assistance and growth. These policies had not received tremendous approval, initially and during the campaign. In Theodore Sorensen’s analysis of the 1960 victory, he does not mention domestic policy as one of the seven top decisive factors.
Going into his presidency and his inaugural, Kennedy would have to be careful in his handling of domestic policy. One of the top reasons for victory Sorenson does list is Kennedy’s television personality. The 1960 elections provided the first televised presidential debates. In these debates, Kennedy confounded expectations and demonstrated more poise and confidence than the sweaty Nixon. Sorenson cites this advantage as crucial to a win. Kennedy had an acute awareness the television and media played on public opinion.
These factors all weighed in on Kennedy’s inaugural. Kennedy had to deal with questionable domestic support, a daunting international system, and new media. If the art of rhetoric if finding a way to handle the circumstances and still persuade your audience, to be effective, Kennedy’s inaugural would have to be a masterpiece.
The Creation & Goals of the Speech
To adequately understand the art of Kennedy’s inaugural, one must appreciate its origins. The staff, officially, began work on the speech in the beginning of 1961. Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s top aid and speechwriter, had started laying the ground work considerably earlier. As we will see later, much of the inaugural’s diction and phrasing originated from 1960 campaign. This may seen impure, but it is fairly commonsensical. The President-elect has just spent that last year laying out his ideology and beliefs, and inevitably effective formulations would linger and even sneak into the inaugural. In his memoirs, Sorensen cites the Acceptance Speech in Los Angeles and televised campaign addresses as the source for many notable phrases.
Thus, the speech, itself, was a kind of amalgamation of lines from previous speeches, a near highlight reel of the top pieces of tested rhetoric. This quality made each line a possible “sound-bite” in the new age of television. The choice to have each line very precise and self-contained demonstrates Sorensen’s and Kennedy’s keen awareness of the media and the broader audience. Though campaign rhetoric played a key role in the creation, the New Frontier and domestic policy were slighted. In his memoirs, Sorensen recounts the difficulty crafting nonpartisan domestic policy sections of the speech. Eventually, Kennedy eased the speechwriter’s burden: He told Sorensen, “Let’s drop the domestic stuff altogether. It’s too long anyway. It’s more effective that way [without domestic policy] and I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag.”
This decision to exclude domestic policy allowed the speech to focus on foreign policy, a more uniting topic where the President-elect had already scored political points. According to Sorensen, Kennedy “wanted it focused on foreign policy. He did not want it to sound partisan, pessimistic or critical of his predecessor. He wanted neither the customary cold war rhetoric about the Communist menace nor any weasel words that Khrushchev might misinterpret. And he wanted it to set a tone for the era about to begin.”
Thus the inaugural’s goals were harmony among friends and a novel, yet civil handling of enemies. Now let’s us begin to examine not the art of the text, but its execution of those goals.
JANUARY 20, 1960
There is no greater stage. Overshadowing the assemblage of statesman, foreign dignitaries, and Presidents, Kennedy commanded the east balcony of a newly painted Capitol with thousands of eager fans, battling the cold to see their new leader. His address, though, was to an even greater audience. Kennedy used this opportunity to speak to all members of the international community, allies, enemies and all Americans. He had a special message, a pledge or request, for each, and he structured his speech in that manner.
Kennedy began his inaugural with a traditional introduction, acknowledging the great leaders in the audience and then the great legacy before him. He grounds himself in the American tradition, reminding everyone, “I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbearers prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” Also, this attempts to counterbalance Kennedy’s youth — he was only 43 when elected. Moreover, it demonstrates the importance of the American Founding and its principles for Kennedy. This theme continues throughout the speech, while Kennedy ties America’s course in the international situation to its guiding principles. Immediately, he makes it explicit: “…the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” Thus, Kennedy set the ideological framework for his foreign policy, expanding the American view of freedom to the world. Scholar Robert Bellah takes this interpretation one step further by focusing on the reference to “Almighty God.” He argues that Kennedy’s mention of divinity while reference to his constitutional oath elevates his responsibility from just serving the American people to more universal goods.
This theme will return later in the speech.
Though Kennedy emphasizes the ideas in the Founding, he is quick to distinguish his people from past Americans: “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” In this section, Kennedy is most apparently employing his character for rhetorical purposes. He turns his youth around to symbolize a new generation, contrasting the older, quieter Eisenhower. Moreover, Kennedy had served in WWII and witnessed the calcification of the Cold War. This section identifies the new President as one who has a new perspective and a basis for his views. Paragraph 4 closes with the mobilization of the Declaration of Independence, summarizing Kennedy’s general policy to “assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
FRIENDS, ALLIES, AND SISTERS
Structurally, the speech continues to address the different members of the international community. Kennedy begins with the allies. The content of this section is largely traditional (“we pledge… loyalty”), but Kennedy’s style is still noticed. The lines, “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do,” begin to demonstrate the speeches technical beauty. This is an example of anastrophe — deviating from the normal order of words — a rhetorical device probably unknown to the audience, yet still powerful in delivery.
Next, Kennedy addresses new members of the free world. In his section, he tempers his idealism with a refreshing touch of realism. He does not expect the free, skeptical world to follow America without question. Moreover, Kennedy places responsibility for their success not in his hands, but in theirs: “we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom.” This continues later in his address to the people still shackled by “mass misery,” when he promises to “help them help themselves.” Pragmatically, he makes it clear that America cannot be the world’s keeper, singlehandedly, nor should it be. Kennedy’s view of government (later immortalized with “ask not”) demands joint responsibility and service to society — as seen in his creation of the Peace Corp. In his inaugural, Kennedy expanded that sense of responsibility to freedom loving people across the globe.He continues to with a call for international cooperation. First, to the “sisters” to the south, Central and South America, he pledges a “new alliance of progress” to cast off the “chains of poverty.” Pragmatism immediately follows and contrasts this idealism. “…this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.” Though lofty, this policy emphasizes national security, keeping the U.S.S.R. off our borders, again demonstrating his practical idealism. The “friends” section closes with a vigilant promise to aid the U.N. from becoming “merely a forum for incentive.”
“TO THOSE NATIONS WHO WOULD MAKE THEMSELVES OUR ADVERSARY”
Throughout the speech, Kennedy makes somewhat vague references to the U.S.S.R. (“iron tyranny,” “back of the tiger,” “hostile powers,” etc). It should be noted that he never directly names our Cold War adversary or any specific country for that matter. Yet the intention rings true. When he addresses “those nations who would make themselves our adversary” everyone knows who he is talking about.
In these sections, Kennedy truly demonstrates the excellence in his character. Embodying a true statesman, he unabashedly confronts the perils of the present, while striving for a better peace. Moreover, he reminds both sides the incentive to peaceful recourse, safety from “the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science.” He begins with the basis for his “request” and then continues to outlines a rough set of goals for the cold relationship.
The first goal is on based on western side of the Atlantic: “We dare not tempt them with weakness.” This sentiment reverberates with Kennedy’s campaign, where he played the “missile gap” effectively. Some saw his next line as unnecessarily alarmist: “For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.” Nonetheless, only minutes earlier Kennedy had reminded the war that this generation was “tempered by war, and disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” He had fought in a war, and he was not willing to get in another, let alone lose one. Moreover, he had intimated this sentiment before, demonstrating his honest belief that the U.S.S.R. only responded to strength.
After that note of national self-interest, he again opens the doors to more peaceful and friendly cooperation. He admits the flaws with over-militarization (“the spread of the deadly atom”) and then begins his litany of requests from both sides. They requests themselves are nothing extraordinary; they are basic calls for the use of the positive ends of human nature and science, civility and exploration (the closest reference to the New Frontier). Technically, however, these lines are breathtaking. First, each begins with the phrase “let us.” This is a classic example of anaphora, a tool Kennedy used often and even earlier in the speech. This repetition tied together the requests, while adding structure to each individual one. The first call, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate,” employs chiasmus, a device where phrases are reversed in order in successive sentences. This links not negotiating and desperately negotiating, emphasizing their common ineffectiveness. The other key rhetorical device in these sections and in the inaugural overall is antithesis, a juxtaposition of contrasting words or ideas. More specifically, Kennedy often used the “not__, but__” construction, as seen in the lines, “let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law…” This device is throughout the speech, adding rhetorical beauty, but in this section, it serves a symbolic purpose as well. Antithesis pairs together contrasting ideas, shunning one and accepting the other. This construction — joined, parallel phrases with a preference of one — symbolizes Kennedy’s view of the Cold War. Though he asked for peaceful cooperation, he still maintain a strong ideological preference for the American system, and this sentiment is seen and furthered throughout the inaugural.
MY FELLOW CITIZENS
Kennedy transitions from his address to the U.S.S.R. to one the American people with a note of realism: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days.” Here he manages to shirk off the expectations set by FDR or any timeline. Then he finishes the repeated “let” phrases with “let us begin.” This use of the first person plural along with the mention of 100 days stages and transitions to his discussion of national issues and priorities. In these sections, Kennedy again makes the surprising transfer of responsibility. Just as he called on sovereign nations to “help themselves,” he tells the American people, “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.” This sentiment may seem odd coming from a man who has just sworn to “protect, serve, and defend” the Constitution. It would seem that when a President-elect places his hand on the bible and the other in the air, those hands are really picking up responsibility for success or failure. Kennedy circumvents this logic with the help of history. “Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.” This responsibility has been and is the people’s duty. Thus, he places responsibility in the citizens’ hands; the hands that buried the fallen in the previous wars, the hands would carry the weapons in the future ones.
Again Kennedy promptly follows the mention of past generations with mentions of the uniqueness of the moment. “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle… against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” The trumpet reference harkens a biblical sentiment, emphasizing the higher purpose of the current undertaking. It is this higher and broader purpose against the common enemies of man that makes it a “historic effort.” These broad and idealistic phrases and calls may seem impractical, but they serve a real purpose for the speech. They give the speech a more optimistic feel, playing to the public’s pride: “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.” By making this movement unique, more would be willing to join or support it.
At this point, Kennedy has captured the immediate audience’s trust (The crowd did yell “Yes” to Kennedy’s query, “Will you join in that historic effort?”). He had devoted the speech to persuading free people — abroad and at home — to accept the responsibility of their freedom. This culminated with the immortal line, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” If the “success of liberty” defined Kennedy’s philosophy of government, then “ask not…” summarized his view of citizenship. The use of antithesis here is powerful, as it highlighted the drastic reversals of commonly accepted views.
Kennedy closes his inaugural address with a practical understanding that this undertaking has no tangible positives (“good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds”), but he justifies its undertaking by touching on higher purposes. The last section cites many of the key motivating forces in American life, “good conscience,” patriotism (“land we love”), and the divine (“His blessing and His help”). The successive placement of these strong drives adds energy to the closing summation, “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” Bellah cites that line, coupled with the other religious allusions, as the simplest formulation of Kennedy’s philosophy and — arguably — the overall American purpose.
Broadly, Kennedy’s speech served as an expansion of the American Founding. It takes the fundamental principles of our democracy and mobilizes them against tyranny abroad and apathy at home. Kennedy’s rhetoric employs classical themes (duty) and techniques (antithesis), emphasizing the seriousness of purpose. Moreover, the technical beauty and apparent thoughtfulness worked to combat the general tendency to write off Kennedy as a naïve idealist. These techniques complemented his realist evaluation of the unstable international order. Thus, he gave his foreign policy practicality, necessity, and righteousness. Though simply put, this task would be too much for one man or one office. To ensure the success of liberty, he had to ensure all those who wanted it worked for it, from countries to people.
Overall, President Kennedy, confronted by distrust and disharmony, began his short-lived presidency by summoning the better angels of our nature, civility and responsibility.
- Aristotle. Rhetoric. n.d.
- Bellah, Robert. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus (Cambridge) (2005): 40–55.
- Burton, Gideon O. Silva Rhetoricae. 26 February 2007. Bringham Young University. 30 April 2007
- Clarke, Thurston. Ask Not. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.
- Kennedy, John Fitzgerald. “JFK Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.” 12 September 1960. American Rhetoric. 30 April 2007
- Sorensen, Theodore C. Kennedy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
- Tofel, Richard J. Sounding the Trumpet. Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 2005.