John F. Kennedy's Presidency

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What was the context of JFK's inaugural address?

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The main context to Kennedy's 1960 Inaugural address is the Cold War. The address, therefore, is aimed not just at the United States' people, but those of the entire world. One of its key goals is to allude to the main differences that the United States wanted to articulate as separating it and its allies from the Soviet sphere of influence.

Therefore, Kennedy opens his speech mentioning "freedom," a clear allusion to the lack of freedom in the communist states. Kennedy also very quickly mentions God, asserting that he swore his oath of office before "Almighty God" and stating that our rights come not from the "state but the hand of God." This clearly marks a line of demarcation between the "godless communists" and the "god-fearing" democracies of the world. He will also end the speech by evoking God.

Kennedy extends a hand across the globe, asserting American leadership of the free world. Kennedy assures allies of his fullest support and reaches out to poorer parts of the globe, such as the Global South. At this time, there was a contest for which sphere of influence many of these former colonies would fall under—American or Soviet—and Kennedy appeals to these undecided nations on the basis of freedom.

Kennedy also asserts strongly that the United States will not back down in defending its interests or those of its allies. He asks for cooperation and reconciliation, not naming the Soviet Union but clearly intending that nation to understand his message of being willing to use both military might and diplomacy in the Cold War.

This address is important because it strongly asserts the United States' position as the "leader of the free world": the days of isolationism are long gone, and the United States will do everything it can to promote its way of life around the globe.

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In May of 1960, a few months before JFK's January 1961 inauguration, a US spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace. The incident contributed greatly to the deterioration of the relationship of the US and the USSR as the Cold War, begun in the late 1940s, dragged on.

The US had put in place an arms embargo with Cuba in 1958, and by mid-1960, Cuba was openly buying arms from the USSR. When JFK approved the ultimately failed CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the US was increasingly concerned with the communist regime of Fidel Castro.

Early in his inaugural speech, JFK acknowledges "...man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish...all forms of human life." The nuclear threat of the USSR was a grave concern, and so was the plight of the impoverished all over the world. JFK takes care to note that helping the poor across the globe is the right thing to do, but not just because the communists are doing it. He communicated that countries struggling to be free must be helped along by the US and not be allowed to fall victim to our major foe.

JFK asserts the need for "both sides" to "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."

The context of JFK's inaugural speech is a geopolitical divide among democratic and communist nations, some equipped with nuclear arms.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The most dominant issue in the world was the Cold War at the time of President Kennedy's inaugural address.  This took on different forms around the world, but the battle for Communist control and the control of the West set the stage for Kennedy's arrival on the world stage.  In his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy called for a renewed sense of optimism in America's role in this battle.  He appealed to a youthful vigor in "answering the call" of the demands placed on America.  President Kennedy channeled American zeal through his Inaugural Address in allowing individuals to see their own role in this new conception, where the stakes were high, but equal to the task of American Identity.  With the advent of television, more Americans were able to feel that Kennedy was speaking "to them," making his words that sought to inspire and "call to action" more meaningful and relevant.

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