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Inaugural History Feature of the Week: JFK

 Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961.

Inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, January 20, 1961. Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (111-SC-578830), PD.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT will feature an inaugural speech by a previous president from the Miller Center’s archives.

This week marks the 49th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, Texas. With this anniversary in mind, RTT highlights JFK’s inaugural address as well as some of our resources on his assassination.

In preparing for his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, JFK sought to capitalize on the moment to both inspire the country as well as to discuss the challenges confronting the country in the Cold War. He wanted the speech to be both concise and devoid of partisan rhetoric. JFK tapped his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, to study previous inaugural speeches, especially Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in order to help the president craft a successful speech. JFK told Sorenson, “I don’t want people to think I’m a windbag,” and he also enlisted suggestions from friends and advisors.

A few years ago, Sorenson surmised that the speech “was not Kennedy's best” and “may not even have been Kennedy's most important speech historically, in terms of its impact on our planet.” However, it was “world-changing.” In Kennedy, Sorenson wrote that JFK thought that earlier drafts of the speech focused too heavily on domestic issues and the following lines were cut from the speech:

We must begin by facing the fact that history’s most abundant economy has slackened its growth to a virtual halt. That the world’s most productive farmers have only suffered for their success. . . . That too many of our cities are sinking into squalor.

One of the most significant cuts from earlier versions of the speech was a reference to civil rights:

Our nation’s most precious resource, our youth, are developed according to their race or funds, instead of their own capability.

The reason for the omission of important domestic issues was JFK’s belief that they would inherently raise partisan divisions. Instead, JFK sought to demonstrate his grasp of global issues and the passing of the torch of leadership to a new generation. Thus, the final version of the speech stressed concern for global poverty and opposition to dictatorships. It also stressed America’s role as a champion of liberty throughout the world:

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.

JFK’s Inaugural Address also emphasized America’s preference for negotiations and cooperation in the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. While attempting to downplay tensions on the one hand, JFK also sought to convey American resolve. The following lines from the speech are illustrious:

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course—both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms—and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.

JFK’s inaugural is perhaps best know for the closing words, in which he called upon Americans to take up public service:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

However, it is worth noting that this memorable line was also challenged by important intellectuals who viewed the line as promoting a paternalist government infringing on the rights of free citizens. In Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Milton Freedman argued:

Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary…

The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather “What can I and my compatriots do through government” to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect? Freedom is a rare and delicate plant. Our minds tell us, and history confirms, that the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power. Government is necessary to preserve our freedom, it is an instrument through which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. Even though the men who wield this power initially be of good will and even though they be not corrupted by the power they exercise, the power will both attract and form men of a different stamp.

This week also marks the 49th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The Miller Center has put together an exhibit of some of the highlights of the Presidential Recordings that took place on November 22, 1963, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The JFK Assassination Tapes include a selection of calls from Air Force One enroute from Dallas to Washington. The plane was carrying a newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson along with the slain president's body. Also worth a view is the first recorded conversation in LBJ’s presidential recordings between the new president and former first Lady Jackie Kennedy. At the end of the conversation with Jackie Kennedy on December 2, 1963, LBJ told the former First Lady that she still had a valuable role to play in American society, especially by giving him "strength" to conduct his affairs. Citing something he had "told my mama a long time ago," Johnson recounted the boost in morale that the women in his life had provided him over the years, especially his narrow 1948 Senate election. Also, be sure to check out this Miller Center Forum in which Historian Steven M. Gillon discusses his book, The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After: Lyndon B. Johnson’s Pivotal First Day as President. Gillon draws upon tape recordings made during Johnson’s first hours as President to show that much of the Johnson agenda was developed in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy’s death.

 

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