A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Inaugural Address (1961)

John F. Kennedy

Bareheaded and coatless in the bitter cold of a bright January day, John F. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected president of the United States, placed his hand on the Bible and swore the oath of office. In his inaugural address, Kennedy offered a grand vision. We remember the inspirational words, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” What is too often lost in our collective memories, shaped as they are by the tragedy of a young man cut down before his time, is what he asked us to do for our country. “Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship …”: Kennedy was summoning Americans to a global mission. His words rang out in warning to America’s foes abroad. It was a moment, as Robert Frost wrote in his inaugural poem, “Of young ambition eager to be tried …. In any game the nations want to play.”

How does this speech express the sense of possibility we associate with Kennedy’s presidency? Does it fit best here, in a section on “The Politics of the Affluent Society,” or with the previous documents on the Cold War?

VICE PRESIDENT JOHNSON, MR. SPEAKER, MR. CHIEF JUSTICE, PRESIDENT EISENHOWER, VICE PRESIDENT NIXON, PRESIDENT TRUMAN, REVEREND CLERGY, FELLOW CITIZENS:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet 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.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolu-

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