John F. Kennedy's Presidency

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What three phrases are repeated in JFK's inaugural speech?

Three of the numerous phrases repeated in President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address are “we shall” and “we shall not,” “let us begin” and related uses of “let us,” and “as a call.”

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In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy uses several forms of repetition as primary rhetorical devices. He begins by addressing his audience as “we,” thereby establishing the commonalities between him and the audience or the American people. Encouraging Americans to join with him in embarking on a “new beginning,” he lays out the diverse avenues they will pursue together. He does so by using the phrases “we shall,” “let us,” and “let us begin.” Toward the end of the speech, he brings up “the call to service,” using the metaphor of a trumpet that acts “as a call” to different kinds of service.

The president includes “we shall” throughout the addresses. In one instance, he expresses his confidence in the people’s shared commitment to communicate their intentions to other countries.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price...to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

He also uses the phrase in regard to American support for new countries that resist “iron tyranny” and those that oppose aggression in the Americas.

We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom....

Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them.

Numerous phrases including “let” and “let us,” especially “let us begin” occur throughout the address. Three uses of "let us" in one paragraph precede a list of cases that begins with “let both sides.” After that list, he offers a summation of the difficulties involved and then ends this section with “But let us begin.”

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....

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In the last few paragraphs, the president shifts the emphasis to the people’s role. He likens military service to other kinds of public service that they may be asked, or called, to do. A trumpet is summoning them, “as a call” to diverse ways to do things for their country.

The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

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....

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In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy repeats the phrase "my fellow citizens" twice, and interestingly, uses it in two different ways. In the first iteration, he says:

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.

In that instance, he is clearly addressing citizens of the United States.

In the second instance, he says the following:

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In this instance, he is expanding the notion of citizenship to include like minded people around the world as part of the American dream and the American century; this is a clear display of the United States' perception of itself as a world leader and a world power.

Since the above answer focused on three other uses of repeated phrases (or clauses), I will focus on repeated words used to build antithesis. The whole speech works on the antithesis between a darker and a brighter future that Kennedy can imagine coming. For example, Kennedy says:

For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.

"All forms" is repeated twice and helps highlight the antithesis between the two paths humankind can take: the good path of abolishing "all forms" of poverty or the bad path of nuclear war, which would destroy "all forms" of human life.

Another example of this kind of antithesis appears in the following:

United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do ...

"Little we cannot/can" creates another antithesis between the possibilities inherent in unity and the lack of possibilities that disunity will bring.

Looking through the speech, you will find more example of the device of antithesis using repeated words in different contexts.

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On Friday, January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address as President of the U.S.A.  One of the rhetorical devices that Kennedy used in his speech was anaphora; that is, he repeated certain phrases at the beginning of sentences.  Below are three of the phrases that he repeated, with some examples.

1) "We pledge":

This much we pledge—and more

we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends.

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.

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves

2) "Let both sides":

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

 Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.

3) "Ask not":

ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

 

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