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 9138 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.

President John F. Kennedy with Warren Magnuson and Al Rosellini
Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy walks with Wash­ing­ton’s U.S. Sen­a­tor War­ren Mag­nu­son and Gov­er­nor Al Roselli­ni at Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port in 1953 (Pho­to cour­tesy of the Wash­ing­ton State Archives)

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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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