John F. Kennedy's Famous "New Frontier Speech"

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John F. Kennedy's Famous "New Frontier Speech"
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20 pages | SMC 1449

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      Background

      Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.
       - Alan Jay Lerner, Camelot; quoted by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy to historian Theodore White, November 29, 1963.

      American citizens today are filled with cynicism and distrust about presidential politics; most young people today assume that all modern presidents have deceived or disappointed the American people. Perhaps it is worth reminding them that it is possible to have a president who is honest, idealistic, and devoted to the best values of this country. It happened at least once - I was there.

       - Ted Sorensen, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)

      Presidential speeches hardly come tripping off the communal tongue, but most schoolyard graduates can, at least, recite the most famous lines of three of them. "Fourscore and seven years ago," they know, is the beginning of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" is what Franklin D. Roosevelt said, upon assuming the presidency in the midst of the Great Depression. And John F. Kennedy, they'll remember, or have heard, from their parents or even grandparents, spoke seventeen words which instantly became, in American memory, indelible. On his dazzlingly bright 1961 Inauguration Day in Washington D.C., against the backdrop of the Capitol blanketed in fresh snow, the youngest president ever elected challenged his fellow Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." His audience was electrified; people really did, then and there, resolve to work for their country; lives, and careers, were changed forever. But had the packed throngs, the millions upon millions watching the broadcast on television or listening across the world on radio, been paying really close attention, all the back to July 15, 1960, they would have heard that momentous call, before.

      In his Acceptance Speech for the presidential nomination at the National Democratic Convention on July 15, 1960, entitled "The New Frontier", Kennedy sought to define what exactly comprised that catchphrase. He wanted a motto which reflected the tasks and challenges ahead, while invoking a courageous past - and pioneer days, apparently, came to mind (whose mind was, in all likelihood, a combination of JFK's and his speechwriter Pollux, Ted Sorensen.) It was in that connection, then, that Kennedy said from the podium that night in Los Angeles that he now stood "facing west on what was once the last frontier."

      From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within.

      Today some would say that those struggles are all over -- that all the horizons have been explored -- that all the battles have been won -- that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won -- and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960's -- a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils -- a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.


      Wilson's New Freedom, he continued, promised "a new political and economic framework" and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal promised "security and succor to those in need." But his New Frontier was not a set of promises. It was, instead, a set of challenges. And then he told the world, as he readied to fight for the presidency, what he would give them when he won.

      The New Frontier... sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook -- it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.

      There it was: he would offer, in place of the status quo, the opportunity for each and every one of his listeners, to be a pioneer on a New Frontier. They would explore, he said,

      uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus

      that they might master, ultimately, both "the far side of space and the inside of men's minds."

      In the 1,000 days of John F. Kennedy's Administration, thousands - perhaps millions - of Americans heeded his call. In the Peace Corps, the Green Berets, the Space Program, in the Freedom Marches and the Sit-ins, "there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot"...
       ~
      Kennedy's most famous words, then, had their origin in this speech announcing the New Frontier which, all too soon, would be tragically mythologized as "Camelot." But if it is best remembered for its soaring poetry, it is also worth remembering that "The New Frontier Speech" was given in the midst of a political campaign, and needed to satisfy specific prosaic concerns. Thus it was crafted to do more, even, than inspire a new generation to public service - but to win over a majority of American voters. Kennedy had, with his Acceptance Speech, to unify his party after a bruising contest; reassure Protestants fearful of his Catholicism; and attract independent and republican voters mistrustful of his "inexperience" and religion. But even then, it was noted - on the Sunday Editorial page of the July 17th New York Times, no less - that Kennedy had taken a new tack in this speech. One person, at least, heard the opening bars, as it were, of the siren-song of Camelot. "Kennedy supported the platform, of course, but his tone was quite different," columnist James Reston opined. "'The new frontier of which I speak,' he said, 'is not a set of promises; it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.' "

      Typed Manuscript, with autograph additions and deletions, headed "The New Frontier" and being JFK's speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, accepting the party's nomination for President of the United States (known as “The New Frontier Speech.”); 20 pages, quarto, no place [Los Angeles], no date [July 15, 1960.] In large typescript - a reading copy - it is missing, apparently, one or two pages, when compared to the published, and televised, speech. Exceptionally rare. Major lines on "New Frontier" appear on pages 14-17.
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      all pages and transcript

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      Page 1 transcript
      THE NEW FRONTIER 

      With a deep sense of duty and high resolve, I accept your nomination. 

      I accept it with a full and grateful heart -- without reservation -- and with only one obligation -- the obligation to devote every effort of body, mind and spirit to lead our Party back to victory and our nation back to greatness.

      I am grateful, too, that you have provided me with such an eloquent statement of our Party's platform.  Pledges which are made so eloquently are made to be kept.  "The Rights of Man" -- the civil and economic rights essential to the human dignity of all men -- are indeed our goal and our first principles. This is a platform on which I can run with enthusiasm and conviction. 

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      -2-

      And I am grateful, finally, that I can rely in the coming months on so many others -- on a distinguished running-mate who brings unity to our ticket and strength to our platform, Lyndon Johnson -- on one of the most articulate statesmen of our time, ^ on whose Counsel I shall lean heavily in coming months [sic] Adlai Stevenson -- on a great spokesman for our needs as a nation and a people, Stuart Symington ^ on Hubert Humphrey - my traveling companion through Wisconsin and West Virginia -- on Paul Butler our devoted [text is crossed out] courageous Chairman, -- and on that fighting campaigner whose support I welcome, President Harry S. Truman. 

      I feel a lot safer now that they are on my side again. And I am proud of the contrast with our Republican competitors.  For their ranks are apparently so thin that not one challenger has come forth with both the competence and the courage to make theirs an open convention. 

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      I am fully aware of the fact that the Democratic Party, by nominating someone of my faith, has taken on what many regard as a new and hazardous risk -- new, at least, since 1928. But I look at it this way:  the Democratic Party has once again placed its confidence in the American people, and in their ability to render a free, fair judgment.  And you have, at the same time, placed your confidence in me, and in my ability to render a free, fair judgment -- to uphold the Constitution and my oath of office -- and to reject any kind of religious pressure or obligation that might directly or indirectly interfere with my conduct of the Presidency in the national interest. My record of 14 years supporting public education -- supporting complete separation of church and state -- and resisting 

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      pressure from any source on any issue should be clear by now to everyone. 

      I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise by voting either for me or against me solely on account of my religious affiliation.  It is not relevant, I want to stress, what some other political or religious leader may have said on this subject.  It is not relevant what abuses may have existed in other countries or in other times.  It is not relevant what pressures, if any, might conceivably be brought to bear on me.  I am telling you now what you are entitled to know:  that my decisions on every public policy will be my own -- as an American, a Democrat and a free man. And I mention it this evening only in order to clarify my views on this matter I [...] the hope then in the campaign we can concentrate our efforts on the great challenges before us. 

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      Under any circumstances, however, the victory we seek in November will not be easy.  We all know that in our hearts.  We recognize the power of the forces that will be aligned against us.  We know they will invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln on behalf of their candidate -- despite the fact that his political career has often seemed to show charity toward none and malice for all. 

      We know that it will not be easy to campaign against a man who has spoken or voted on every known side of every known issue.  Mr. Nixon may feel it is his turn now, after the New Deal and the Fair Deal -- but before he deals, someone had better cut the cards. 

      That "someone" may be the millions of Americans who voted for President Eisenhower but balk at his would-be, self-appointed

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      successor.  For just as historians tell us that Richard I was not fit to fill the shoes of bold Henry II -- and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle -- they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure to the foot-steps of Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

      Perhaps he could carry on the party policies -- the policies of Nixon, Benson, Dirksen and Goldwater.  But this nation cannot afford such a luxury.  Perhaps we could afford a Coolidge following Harding.  And perhaps we could afford a Pierce following Fillmore.  But after Buchanan this nation needed a Lincoln -- after Taft we needed a Wilson -- after Hoover we needed Franklin Roosevelt . . .  And after eight years of drugged and fitful sleep, this nation needs strong, creative 

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      Democratic leadership in the White House. 

      But we are not merely running against Mr. Nixon.  Our task is not merely one of itemizing Republican failures.  Nor is that wholly necessary.  For the families forced from the farm will know how to vote without our telling them.  The unemployed miners and textile workers will know how to vote.  The old people without medical care -- the families without a decent home -- the parents of children without adequate food or schools -- they all know that it's time for a change. 

      But I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack.  The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate.  We are not here to curse the darkness, but to

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      light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.  As Winston Churchill said on taking office some 20 years ago:  if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.

      Today our concern must be with that future.  For the world is changing.  The old era is ending.   The old ways will not do.

      Abroad, the balance of power is shifting.  There are new and more terrible weapons  --  new and uncertain nations  --  new pressures of population and deprivation.  One-third of the world, it has been said, may be free  --  but one-third is the victim of cruel repression  --  and the other one-third is rocked by the pangs of poverty, hunger and envy.  More

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      energy is released by the awakening of these new nations than by the fission of the atom itself. 

      Meanwhile Communist influence has penetrated further into Asia, stood astride the Middle East and now festers some 90 miles off the coast of Florida.  Friends have slipped into neutrality -- and neutrals into hostility.  As our keynoter reminded us, the President who began his career by going to Korea ends it by staying away from Japan. 

      The world has been close to war before -- but now man, who has survived all previous threats to his existence, has taken into his mortal hands the power to exterminate the entire species some seven times over. 

      Here at home, the changing face of the

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      future is equally revolutionary.  The New Deal and the Fair Deal were bold measures for their generations -- but this is a new generation. 

      A technological revolution on the farm has led to an output explosion -- but we have not yet learned to harness that explosion usefully, while protecting our farmers' right to full parity income. 

      An urban population explosion has overcrowded our schools, cluttered up our suburbs, and increased the squalor of our slums. 

      A peaceful revolution for human rights -- demanding an end to racial discrimination in all parts of our community life -- has strained at the leashes imposed by timid executive leadership.

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      A medical revolution has extended the life of our elder citizens without providing the dignity and security those later years deserve.  And a revolution of automation finds machines replacing men in the mines and mills of America, without replacing their income or their training or their need to pay the family doctor, grocer and landlord. 

      There has also been a change -- a slippage -- in our intellectual and moral strength.  Seven lean years of drouth [sic] and famine have withered the field of ideas.  Blight has descended on our regulatory agencies-- and a dry rot, beginning in Washington, is seeping into every corner of America -- in the payola mentality, the expense account way of life, the confusion between what is legal and what is right.  Too many Americans have 

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      lost their way, their will and their sense of historic purpose. 

      It is time, in short, for a new generation of leadership -- new men to cope with new problems and new opportunities. 

      All over the world, particularly in the newer nations, young men are coming to power - men who are not bound by the traditions of the past -- men who are not blinded by the old fears and hates and rivalries -- young men who can cast off the old slogans and delusions and suspicions. 

      The Republican nominee-to-be, of course, is also a young man.  But his approach is as old as McKinley.  His party is the party of the past.  His speeches are generalities from Poor Richard's Almanac.  Their platform, made

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      up of left-over Democratic planks, has the courage of our old convictions.  Their pledge is a pledge to the status quo -- and today there can be no status quo. 

      For I stand tonight facing West on what was once the last frontier.  From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West.  They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not "every man for himself" -- but "all for the common cause."  They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within. 

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      Page 14 transcript
      -14-

      Today some would say that those struggles are all over -- that all the horizons have been explored -- that all the battles have been won -- that there is no longer an American frontier. 

      But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments.  For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won -- and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960's -- a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils -- a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats. 

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      Page 15 transcript
      -15-

      Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework.  Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal promised security and succor to those in need.  But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises -- it is a set of challenges.  It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.  It appeals to their pride, not their pocketbook -- it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security. 

      But I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not.  Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.  It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, 

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      to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric -- and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me, regardless of party. 

      But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision.  I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that New Frontier.  My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age -- to the stout in spirit, regardless of party --  to all who respond to the Scriptural call: "Be strong and of a good courage;  be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed." 

      For courage -- not complacency -- is our need today -- leadership -- not salesmanship.  And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead, and lead vigorously.  A tired nation, said David Lloyd George, is a Tory nation -- and the United States today cannot afford to be either tired or Tory. 

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      There may be those who wish to hear more -- more promises to this group or that -- more harsh rhetoric about the men in the Kremlin -- more assurances of a golden future, where taxes are always low and subsidies ever high.  But my promises are in the platform you have adopted -- our ends will not be won by rhetoric and we can have faith in the future only if we have faith in ourselves. 

      For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning-point in history.  We must prove all over again whether this nation -- or any nation so conceived -- can long endure -- whether our society -- with its freedom of choice, its breadth of opportunity, its range of alternatives -- can compete with the single-minded advance of the Communist system. 

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      Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure?  That is the real question.  Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction -- but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space and the inside of men's minds? 

      Are we up to the task -- are we equal to the challenge?  Are we willing to match the Russian sacrifice of the present for the future -- or must we sacrifice our future in order to enjoy the present? 

      That is the question of the New Frontier.  That is the choice our nation must make -- a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort -- between national greatness and national decline -- between the 

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      fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of "normalcy" -- between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity. 

      All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we will do. We cannot fail their trust, we cannot fail to try.

      *  *  * 

      It has been a long road from that first snowy day in New Hampshire to this crowded convention city.  Now begins another long journey, taking me into your cities and homes all over America.  Give me your help, your hand, your voice, your vote.  Recall with me the words of Isaiah:  "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;  they shall mount up with wings as eagles;  they shall run and not be weary." 

      As we face the coming challenge, we too, shall wait upon the Lord, and ask that He renew our strength.  Then shall we be equal to

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      to the test.  Then we shall not be weary.  And then we shall prevail.