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Inaugural address of John F. Kennedy

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Inaugural address of John F. Kennedy

File:John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech.ogv

U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered his only inaugural address at 12:51 (ET) Friday, January 20, 1961,[1] immediately after taking the presidential oath of office administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren.[2]


John F. Kennedy was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the presidency in the 1960 presidential election, defeating Republican candidate and Vice President Richard Nixon. In doing so he became the youngest man elected U.S. president and the first Roman Catholic president, but not the youngest president.[3]

By a twist of fate, Kennedy, in replacing Dwight D. Eisenhower, then 70, made the youngest elected president replace the oldest to serve at that time (Ronald Reagan surpassed Eisenhower as the oldest president to serve in 1981.[4]).[5]

Inaugural address

Kennedy took the oath of office at at 12:51 (ET) Friday, 20 January 1961,[1][6] and gave the speech afterwards.[2]

The address is 1364 words and took 13 minutes and 42 seconds to deliver, from the first word to the last word, not including applause at the end, making it the fourth-shortest inaugural address ever delivered. The speech was also the first inaugural address delivered to a televised audience in color.[7] It is widely considered to be among the best presidential inauguration speeches in American history.[8]


The speech was crafted by Kennedy and his speech writer Ted Sorenson. Kennedy had Sorenson study President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as well as other inaugural speeches.[9] Kennedy began collecting thoughts and ideas for his inauguration speech in late November 1960. He took suggestions from various friends, aides and counselors, including suggestions from clergymen for biblical quotations. Kennedy then made several drafts using his own thoughts and some of those suggestions.[10] Kennedy included in his speech several suggestions made by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith and by the former Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II. Kennedy's line "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." is nearly identical to Galbraith's suggestion "We shall never negotiate out of fear. But we shall never fear to negotiate." Stevenson's suggestion "if the free way of life doesn’t help the many poor of this world it will never save the few rich." was the basis for Kennedy's line "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."[11]

Main Ideas of the Speech

As a president coming into power at the height of the Cold War, JFK's duty of both representing the United States as a force to be reckoned with while maintaining peaceful international relations was daunting, at the very least. It is this overarching goal of his presidential term that dominates his inaugural address. Kennedy highlights the newly discovered dangers of nuclear power coupled with the accelerating arms race, and essentially makes the main point that this focus on pure firepower should be replaced with a focus on maintenance of international relations and helping the impoverished in the world. [12] Based on these, it appears that Kennedy's main goal in the speech was to emphasize optimism and idealism in a time of constant panic and anxiety.

Rhetorical Elements

The main focus of the speech can crudely be boiled down to one theme- the relationship between duty and power. [13] This is emphasized by Kennedy's strong use of juxtaposition in the first part of the speech. For example, he states in the second passage, "...Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life," a clear calling-out of not only America, but also other nations of power for skewed Cold War priorities. He again employs the strategy in the fifth passage when he says, "United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative adventures. Divided there is little we can do," again appealing to the idea of refocusing of international values. [14]

One of the main components of classical rhetoric, to prepon (the appropriate), is also extremely prevalent in this address. [15]Recognizing the fear and anxiety prevalent in the American people since the start of the Cold War, Kennedy geared his speech to have an optimistic and even idealistic tone as a means of providing comfort. He does this by quickly moving the time of the speech into the future, and invokes repetition of the phrase "Let both sides..." to allude to how he plans to deal with strained relations while also appealing to the end goal of international unity. He also phrases negative ideas in a manner so as to present them as opportunities- a challenge, appealing to innately American ideals. A great line to emphasize this is in the fourth from last passage, where he states, "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," a simple twist of words that challenges the American public rather than frightening them.

Finally, one cannot discuss John F. Kennedy's inaugural address without mentioning his famous words, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." This use of chiasmus can be seen even as a thesis statement of his speech- a call to action for the public to do what is right for the greater good.

Inauguration Day

The eve of the address was marked by heavy snow, but plans made to cancel the address were overridden.[2] After attending the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, Kennedy headed towards the U.S. Capitol building accompanied by President Dwight Eisenhower to the inaugural ceremony.[2]

Robert Frost attended the inaugural ceremonies, and brought a handwritten poem titled Dedication meant for the President. Although Frost had planned to read aloud a typed copy of the poem at the ceremonies, the sun glare reflecting off the heavy snow that fell the night before made it difficult to read.[16][17] Frost then recited by memory The Gift Outright, and handed the original handwritten version of Dedication to John and his wife Jacqueline, who framed the poem and wrote on the back: For Jack. First thing I had framed to be put in your office. First thing to be hung there.[16]

"Inaugural address of John F. Kennedy"
File:JFK inaugural address.ogg
The full inaugural address made by John F. Kennedy after being sworn in as the thirty-fifth President of the United States on January 20, 1961. (Duration:14 minutes)

Problems playing this file? See media help.

See also


  • Clarke, Thurston Ask Not : The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004. ISBN 0-8050-7213-6.

External links

  • John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
  • Library of Congress, Presidential Inaugurations
  • Complete text, audio mp3 and video excerpt of address
  • Complete (15:29 minute) high quality Video of JFK's Inaugural Address-plays on any browser
  • Rhetorical Terms and Techniques of Persuasion from Kennedy’s Inaugural Address as prepared by the Department of Education and Public Programs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
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