The John F. Kennedy Centenary

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 23, 2017

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John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address
President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961. AP.

Most Americans know three of them by heart. Scant phrases which, though spoken in the most ritualistic and formal of settings, commonly define an age, and a speaker. “With malice toward none” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Nothing to fear but fear itself” in his first. John F. Kennedy, whose centenary is celebrated this month, uttered the third such phrase at his only inauguration and it is, in popular memory, recalled the most simply: “Ask not.” Of course, that is not the whole of the quotation, or the whole story, which is told here…

The seventeen most inspiring words in 20th century American history were spoken by John F. Kennedy, around mid-day, on January 20, 1961, in Washington, D.C. The occasion was his Presidential Inauguration, and came as he was concluding his Inaugural Address.  Kennedy, the first President born in the 20th century, and 27 years younger than his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had just declared that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans – “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage” – and pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Then he spoke the seventeen words –

“And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you –  ask what you can do for your country.”

Those words, when first heard over a half-century ago, were positively electrifying. No president had ever challenged citizens, in peacetime, to sacrifice or commit to a larger vision. With that single sentence, Kennedy inspired people to new possibilities. He raised their expectations of themselves, and of their nation. In response, some joined the Peace Corps, others the Green Berets; thousands flocked to Washington to be part of the “New Frontier.” Students, thinking ahead to government service, went to law school or into programs with social benefit. All across the country, Kennedy’s words changed lives.  “It was a special time,” a Senator remembered years later. “Lord, I’ve never had such a feeling before or since then. It was marvelous; without living it, you can’t express it. It gave the country a lift; it gave the world a lift. People cried in the dusty streets of Africa when he died.” All because of, really, seventeen simple words of inspiration.

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Scholars of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address – and there are, as in most things Kennedy, a plethora of them – have tried for years to ascertain the “authorship” of its most famous phrase. Some give JFK sole credit, some say the line was speechwriter Ted Sorenson’s, and yet still others deduce that inasmuch as Kennedy and Sorenson working on a speech together were closer than the head is to the pillow, the question is moot. Nonetheless, the line did not appear out of nowhere: Kennedy had used a version of it at least a half-dozen times before. It first appeared in his famous July 15, 1960 “New Frontier” speech accepting the presidential nomination at the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles [also in the Shapell Manuscript Collection]. There he proclaimed “The New Frontier… sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” Over the next four months, Kennedy, speaking both extemporaneously and from written texts, tinkered over and over with the wording of the challenge he would issue on Inauguration Day. Using a rhetorical device first made popular by the ancient Hebrews –  adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans, who called it, in Latin, “chiasmus” – Kennedy honed his phrase. In one speech, it was “It is not what I promise I will do; it is what I ask you to join me in doing.” In another, “I do not run for the Presidency emphasizing the services that I am going to bring to you. I run emphasizing the services which the American people must offer their country.” Back and forth, longer and shorter, until finally, two days before his Inauguration, he had the single sentence he knew would always be remembered.

Scholars of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address – and there are, as in most things Kennedy, a plethora of them – have tried for years to ascertain the “authorship” of its most famous phrase. Some give JFK sole credit, some say the line was speechwriter Ted Sorenson’s, and yet still others deduce that inasmuch as Kennedy and Sorenson working on a speech together were closer than the head is to the pillow, the question is moot. Nonetheless, the line did not appear out of nowhere: Kennedy had used a version of it at least a half-dozen times before. It first appeared in his famous July 15, 1960 “New Frontier” speech accepting the presidential nomination at the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles [also in the Shapell Manuscript Collection]. There he proclaimed “The New Frontier… sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.” Over the next four months, Kennedy, speaking both extemporaneously and from written texts, tinkered over and over with the wording of the challenge he would issue on Inauguration Day. Using a rhetorical device first made popular by the ancient Hebrews –  adopted by the Greeks and then the Romans, who called it, in Latin, “chiasmus” – Kennedy honed his phrase. In one speech, it was “It is not what I promise I will do; it is what I ask you to join me in doing.” In another, “I do not run for the Presidency emphasizing the services that I am going to bring to you. I run emphasizing the services which the American people must offer their country.” Back and forth, longer and shorter, until finally, two days before his Inauguration, he had the single sentence he knew would always be remembered.

By January 18th, in the draft of the Address which he took with him to the podium on Inauguration Day, was the “master sentence” toward which the speech built. Some say he had first heard a version of it as a teenager, when his prep school headmaster, borrowing the notion from no less than Cicero. Others speculate the core phrasing came from an Oliver Wendell Holmes speech; but Kennedy, an avid reader since childhood and drawn to political philosophy all his life, didn’t need to copy anyone else’s words. He had been writing his own, as a published author, since college. The citizens of a democracy, he believed, had a responsibility to contribute their best efforts to its survival. This thought had been with him a long time, all the way back, at least, to 1945, when he jotted in a notebook a quote from Rousseau: ”As soon as any man says of the affairs of state, What does it matter to me? The state may be given up as lost.” So on January 20th, 1961 in Washington, D.C., John F. Kennedy put a positive version of that concept to the American people, and for a 1,000 days after that, it lit up lives across the globe.

JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY. 1917 – 1963. The 35th President of the United  States. Of his famous Inaugural Address, House Speaker Sam Rayburn said: “That speech he made out there was better than anything Franklin Roosevelt said at his best – it was better than Lincoln. I think – really think – that he is a man of destiny.”

Autograph Quotation Signed, as President, being the “Ask not” quote from his Inaugural Address, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, no date. Of the greatest rarity. From the estate of General Maxwell Taylor.

Video Transcript

Speaker

Do you John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy do solemnly swear.

Speaker

That you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

And I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

Speaker

And will to the best of your ability.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

And will to the best of my ability.

Speaker

Preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.

Speaker

So help you God.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

So help me God. [inaudible 00:01:05]

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow citizens. We observe today, not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and almighty God, the same solemn oath, our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago. 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.

And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe. The belief that the rights of man come, not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights, to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

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. This much we pledge and more. To those old allies who’s cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do. For we did not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder. To those new states who we welcome to the ranks of the free, 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. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view, but we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom. And to remember that in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

So those people in the Hudson 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.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds, in a new alliance for progress to assist free man and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support. To prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which it’s [inaudible 00:07:42].

Finally, to those nations, who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge, but a request. That both sides begin anew the quest for peace. Before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity, in planned or accidental self destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness for only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt, can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed. But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present costs, both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom. Yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays hand of mankind’s final war. 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 instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let both sides for the first time, 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.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together, let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the Earth, that command of Isaiah to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free. And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor. Not a new balance of power, but a new world of law where the strong adjust, and the weak secure and the peace preserved. All this will not be finished in the first 100 days, nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. Now the trumpet summons us again. Not as they call to bear arms though arms we need. Not as a call to battle, though in battle we are. But a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man, tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies, a grand and global alliance, north and south, east and west that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

And 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.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America, or citizens of the world, ask of us here, the same high standards of strength and sacrifice, which we ask of you. With a good conscience, our only sure reward with history, the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.