John F. Kennedy's Presidency

Start Subscription

What was President Kennedy trying to say in his inaugural speech? Was the speech an accurate and relevant request to action? Is this speech meaningful to today’s society?

In his inaugural speech, President Kennedy reassures not only American citizens but the global community that the United States was committed to leading. The US would engage fully in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union to defend liberty and freedom. Kennedy uses idealistic and optimistic language to assert US interests. The speech is still relevant, because the US continues, albeit with problems, to be a global leader.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would agree that Kennedy's inaugural speech strikes a note of optimism and an attempt to pull people together. However, it also is a speech that is best understood in the context of the Cold War.

Kennedy opens with a call to freedom, then moves on to allude to the...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

I would agree that Kennedy's inaugural speech strikes a note of optimism and an attempt to pull people together. However, it also is a speech that is best understood in the context of the Cold War.

Kennedy opens with a call to freedom, then moves on to allude to the tensions existing at that time between the United States and the Soviet Union, troubles that could lead to a nuclear war, when he states:

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.

He then goes on to allude to the Cold War struggle across the globe to influence countries to become either communist or capitalist. Kennedy states:

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.

Kennedy is using liberty and freedom to refer to his commitment towards anti-communist countries embracing free enterprise systems and freedom of speech and religion. Kennedy states in a not-too-veiled way that the nations of the world are being asked to pick sides. He states that any country that chooses the American side in the global struggle for supremacy would be assured of American support; every country that does not can expect the powerful United States to oppose it.

The speech marks a remarkable advance in the United States's thinking about its role in the world in a mere twenty years. It clearly shows that the US has fully adopted the mantle of superpower and leader of the free world, abandoning completely its long isolationist tradition. Kennedy speaks in this address not only to the United States but to the entire in world.

Kennedy radiates idealism as he reaches out to nations across the globe:

To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required--not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

The inaugural address is an important statement to both American citizens and the world about the US's central importance in global affairs. It is still relevant as the US continues to be a world leader, though troubled in recent years and turning more towards an inward-looking nationalism. Nevertheless, we still have the world's largest economy and military, which makes us a very significant force in global affairs.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The quotes highlighted in the first post are probably the best ones to reflect the spirit of optimism and hope that Kennedy was trying to tap into within the American people.  The zeal and exuberance that Kennedy symbolized was brought out in resonant fashion in his Inauguration Speech.  Kennedy was very well skilled at getting the public to constantly believe that he was articulating a vision of what can be or what could be as opposed to what is.  It is this idea that led many to accept that Kennedy's election was a voice of change.  Bringing this out in his speech, Kennedy wanted to chart the course or establish the perception that his administration would work with Americans in redefining the role of America in both the world and in how it sees itself.  Given the rise of the 1960s spirit that was embodied in his election and the belief in his administration, his Inauguration Speech was a great way to strike this chord and set the tone for this belief.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Kennedy's Inaugural is considered one of the finest ever delivered by an American president. Many political historians concur that the speech delivered characteristics of realism, idealism, historical reference, and strength, all of which are vital to a successful presidency. Kennedy was clear; the United States would pay any price to assure the success of liberty. He was a 'Cold Warrior' with a tone of 'hawkishness' but he knew that every nation would be listening to the speech, especially the Soviet Union.  The speech also suggests that with freedom also comes a responsibility, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. This statement was intended to rally all Americans towards the quest for freedom, in the U.S. as well as other nations of the world. A great example would be Kennedy's creation of the Peace Corps. The volunteer organization gave Americans the opportunity to offer (U.S.) education, medical assistance, etc to those less fortunate that themselves in other countries. However, it must be noted that this to was connected to fighting the Cold War, in a non-violent but very Americanized way.

Yes, I believe this speech is as relevant today as the day it was delivered because the U.S. does stand at the forefront of freedom. In addition, the U.S. continues to assist less fortunate nations with regard to healthcare and food subsidies.

Use the italicized prompts above to locate specific quotes in the speech that you might want to use.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John Fitzgerald Kennedy's eloquent Inaugural Address is considered to be among the best presidential inaugural speeches in history.  Kennedy, the second youngest President ever, stated that "the torch has been passed to a new generation" and suggested the country held the power "to abolish all forms of poverty."  He displayed determination in his speech to defend liberty at any price.

Among the most memorable of his points, Kennedy's placing responsibility upon each citizen was a call to action: 

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

This call to action and individual reponsibility led to the formation of the Peace Corps in which many young people gave of their time to help others around the world.  Other agencies around the country also set about to make America better.

This concept of patriotism and personal responsibility has been shelved by many today. Many people now want a "nanny government" that will take care of them. And, with the influx of some who seek to merely use the benefits of America, there is little asking what they can do for the country. Instead, the mentality is "What can America do for us?"

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team