Fifty years ago in Dallas, our nation lost one of its greatest presidents: Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who led America through the early 1960s.
JFK, as he came to be known, was young, charismatic, and bright. He challenged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” He was elected in 1960 as America’s first Catholic president over Republican Richard Nixon, succeeding Dwight Eisenhower as commander-in-chief.
Major events during Kennedy’s administration included the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (where Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech), the birth of the Apollo space program to land a man on the moon, the negotiation of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the creation of the Peace Corps.
Kennedy called his agenda for the country The New Frontier. Many of the goals of The New Frontier went unrealized until after Kennedy was killed; his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, moved a tremendous amount of legislation through Congress that helped make The New Frontier and Johnson’s “Great Society” a reality.
Kennedy was assassinated November 22nd, 2013, at 12:30 PM Central time. The Warren Commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, concluded Kennedy was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald, firing a 6.5 mm Carcano Model 91⁄38 carbine from the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza.
Oswald was never brought to justice for his alleged crime due to his killing by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. However, the evidence (and multiple scientific experiments carried out years later) suggest that Oswald acted alone, not as part of some larger conspiracy. Many Americans may find it comforting to believe that some such conspiracy existed; we at NPI are not among them.
In this post, however, we’d like to pay tribute to Kennedy, the man, and his legacy, not debunk conspiracy theories or attempt to answer questions posed by skeptics of the Warren Commission’s conclusion.
Kennedy is perhaps best remembered through his speeches, so I’m going to excerpt ten passages from ten different speeches that resonate with us.
Our first selection is from Kennedy’s American University speech, delivered June 10th, 1963 at the university’s commencement ceremonies (Listen to it here).
I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary, rational end of rational men. I realize the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war, and frequently the words of the pursuers fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.
Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs. And every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward, by examining his own attitude towards the possibilities of peace, towards the Soviet Union, towards the course of the cold war and towards freedom and peace here at home.
First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.
Our second selection is from Kennedy’s “I am a Berliner” speech, delivered June 26th, 1963, in the City of West Berlin. (The people gathered to hear this speech, incidentally, did not think that Kennedy was referring to himself as a jelly doughnut; that is an urban legend. His grammar was correct.) Watch the speech here.
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in — to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say on behalf of my countrymen who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride, that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last eighteen years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for eighteen years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope, and the determination of the city of West Berlin.
While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system — for all the world to see — we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.
Our third selection is from Kennedy’s address on civil rights, delivered June 11th, 1963, from the third of Kennedy’s great speeches that month. The following is from the published remarks; it is not a transcript. Watch this speech here.
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.
If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
Our fourth selection is from Kennedy’s May 1961 speech to Congress on urgent national needs, which included a call to action to create what later became the Apollo manned spaceflight program. Listen to the speech here.
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight.
But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.
Our fifth selection is from Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech, delivered January 20th, 1961 in the District of Columbia. Watch the speech here.
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.
I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
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.
Our sixth selection is from Kennedy’s address to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 27th, 1961. This excerpt seems particularly relevant now in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extraordinary surveillance regime created by the National Security Agency. Listen to the speech here.
The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.
Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.
That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.
Our seventh selection is from Kennedy’s address at the University of Washington on November 16th, 1961, just over forty-nine years ago. This speech was delivered here in the great Pacific Northwest, in the heart of Seattle, on a November day not so unlike this one. Listen to it or read the transcript here.
We possess weapons of tremendous power–but they are least effective in combating the weapons most often used by freedom’s foes: subversion, infiltration, guerrilla warfare, civil disorder.
We send arms to other peoples–just as we send them the ideals of democracy in which we believe–but we cannot send them the will to use those arms or to abide by those ideals.
And while we believe not only in the force of arms but in the force of right and reason, we have learned that reason does not always appeal to unreasonable men–that it is not always true that “a soft answer turneth away wrath” — and that right does not always make might.
In short, we must face problems which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions. And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient — that we are only six percent of the world’s population–that we cannot impose our will upon the other ninety-four percent of mankind–that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity — and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.
Our eighth selection is from Kennedy’s 1962 State of the Union address, delivered on January 11th, 1962. Listen to the speech here.
If this Nation is to grow in wisdom and strength, then every able high school graduate should have the opportunity to develop his talents. Yet nearly half lack either the funds or the facilities to attend college. Enrollments are going to double in our colleges in the short space of ten years. The annual cost per student is skyrocketing to astronomical levels — now averaging $1,650 a year, although almost half of our families earn less than $5,000.
They cannot afford such costs–but this Nation cannot afford to maintain its military power and neglect its brainpower.
But excellence in education must begin at the elementary level. I sent to the Congress last year a proposal for Federal aid to public school construction and teachers’ salaries. I believe that bill, which passed the Senate and received House Committee approval, offered the minimum amount required by our needs and–in terms of across-the-board aid–the maximum scope permitted by our Constitution.
I therefore see no reason to weaken or withdraw that bill: and I urge its passage at this session. “Civilization,” said H. G. Wells, “is a race between education and catastrophe.” It is up to you in this Congress to determine the winner of that race.
Our ninth selection is from the Cuban missile crisis speech, delivered by Kennedy on October 22nd, 1962 and carried by television and radio. Listen to it here.
My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can see precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead — months in which our patience and our will will be tested — months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.
The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are — but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world.
The cost of freedom is always high — and Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission. Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right — not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.
Our tenth and final selection is from Kennedy’s Independence Hall speech on July 4th, 1962, delivered in Philadelphia at the site where the Constitution of the United States was put together. Watch the speech here.
Because our system is designed to encourage both differences and dissent, because its checks and balances are designed to preserve the rights of the individual and the locality against preeminent central authority, you and I, Governors, recognize how dependent we both are, one upon the other, for the successful operation of our unique and happy form of government.
Our system and our freedom permit the legislative to be pitted against the executive, the State against the Federal Government, the city against the countryside, party against party, interest against interest, all in competition or in contention one with another.
Our task — your task in the statehouse and my task in the White House — is to weave from all these tangled threads a fabric of law and progress. We are not permitted the luxury of irresolution.
Others may confine themselves to debate, discussion, and that ultimate luxury — free advice. Our responsibility is one of decision — for to govern is to choose.
President Kennedy governed for far fewer years than most American presidents. He was not able to complete his first term in office, or pursue a second, due to his life being cut short so suddenly fifty years ago in Dallas. But his legacy and his speeches live on. Today, we remember him and his administration and the lessons he sought to share with us. May we benefit from his words of wisdom in the years ahead.