49 years ago, on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address in front of a snow-covered Capitol. More than 20,000 people braved the elements in order to witness the inauguration of the 35th president. A president’s inaugural address serves the purpose of setting the tone for the coming presidency and with the words »Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country«, Kennedy did just this; a new era was dawning.
The fifties are seen by many as a decade of contentment, defined by mass consumerism and rising prosperity, during which time the population had however become more and more complacent and self-centred. With his challenge, Kennedy called upon Americans to become engaged citizens who took their civic responsibility seriously. This new beginning is above all signified by Kennedy’s announcement that »the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans«. In contrast to »fuddy-duddy« Eisenhower, Kennedy, with his young family, glamorous wife and youthful, dynamic charisma (and of course in his refusal to wear neither a coat nor a hat at his inaugural address despite freezing temperatures) was himself the embodiment of this new generation full of hope for change.
His speech was also partly a reaction and response to his critics, who regarded him as too young and inexperienced (particularly in the field of foreign affairs) to govern the country successfully. The Soviet Premier Khrushchev had already held a speech a few days prior to Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he had pledged his support for »wars of national liberation«; in essence, he had near enough sanctioned a worldwide communist revolution. Kennedy took this on board but responded in a rational, measured way and did not engage in any war-mongering. He made it crystal clear that America was prepared 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«. However, he also called for both sides of the Cold War to come together in a »quest for peace«, by taking part in arms inspections and controls. The quote, »Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate«, though a declaration of American strength and self-assertion, is at the same time an assurance of a willingness to co-operate with the Soviets.
Why, some people ask, did the speech deal almost exclusively with foreign affairs? Kennedy provides an explanation with the proclamation, »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.« The world found itself in the midst of the Cold War and as the Cuban Missile Crisis would later demonstrate, a nuclear war was so to speak only a push of button away. From this perspective then, there was in fact nothing more important to discuss than the issue of war – and peace.***