When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Cold War tensions were heating up fast. Just several months earlier, the United States placed nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy. Gary Powers, a spy-plane pilot, had recently been captured by the Soviets. Cuba had fallen to Communism. A Communist spy ring had been uncovered in England. Given these uncertain times, Kennedy gave his inaugural address to a nation that was full of Cold War anxieties. While his speech touches on a number of topics, there are many references to the Cold War that put it into context. Here are five of them.
Kennedy makes a reference to nuclear weapons early in the address.
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.
With the Soviet Union and the United States both possessing nuclear weapons, Kennedy wanted to underscore the responsibility that the United States had to use its power for good, not for destruction.
He goes on to say,
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.
This is a direct challenge to Communism. Communist nations claimed to be the originators of their people's rights. They rejected religion and used the state to attempt to fill its absence. Kennedy presents the United States as a foil to this idea. He invokes the belief of the Founding Fathers that the rights of the people are divinely given, and it is the state's responsibility to protect them rather than to provide them.
Having fought to make the world safe for democracy in World War II, Kennedy reminds the American people that the current circumstances place that "hard and bitter peace" at risk. Without saying it directly, he makes the point that as long as Communism is at work, the United States will remain
unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
In the decade and a half after World War II, many former colonies had achieved independence. The United States and the Soviet Union vied for influence among these new countries. In his speech, Kennedy addresses these countries to present the United States as a friend and protector of their new freedom. By contrast, he insinuates that an alliance with the Soviets would become just another form of tyranny.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny.
Kennedy even alludes to the Monroe Doctrine in opposing foreign influence in the Western Hemisphere. At the time, several Latin American republics were struggling to defeat dictatorships. Just two years before, Communist forces in Cuba had toppled a dictator and became an ally of the Soviets. Many Americans were nervous about having a Communist nation and Soviet ally in the region. Kennedy affirms that the United States will oppose any future instances of this.
But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.