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JFK's Inaugural Address: 50 Years Ago and Still Relevant

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Message Bud Goodall

"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."

 If you watch the video and read the text of JFK's Inaugural Address delivered on January 20, 1961, you cannot help but be struck by how it reflects a world of difference in our global political culture then and now.   Perhaps that is only as it should be, or must be, because our world has evolved considerably during the past 50 years.   Yet inaugural speeches for American presidents tend toward a constancy of theme and topics over time: There is the acceptance of the hand-off of power; the promise of change, but not too much; a tip of the hat to the ideals of our founders; a strategically ambiguous few carefully chosen words about domestic and foreign policies that will likely define the metrics to measure the accomplishments of the new leader; and call to God to bless the work of this new administration.

In that regard, Kennedy's speech is unremarkable.   He touches eloquently on all of them.   He adds to them the climatic memorable line "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and uses the tone and form of that expression as a poetic link to the next stanza, "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."  

Gender insensitivity aside--for in 1961 the word "man" was commonly understood to reflect both women and men--the language of the speech is marked by a division of the world into friends and enemies, allies and foes.   The former defined as those will join with us to ensure "the survival and success of liberty" and the struggle "against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself"; the latter defined as Godless Communists who, while never directly named, are clearly implied through the first half of the speech.   In that binary division this address is very much one that reflects the cold war sensibilities defined by a fear of the spread of a singular Communist ideology and power that challenged American interests, values, and power, and the hope that a global resistance to Communism enables by the spread of democracy, enterprise, and freedom would rise up to win the day.

That contest is over and, thankfully, Kennedy's vision triumphed in the end.   Not during his short administration nor that of his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, not even that of his successors Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.   It was during the tail end of Ronald Reagan's second term, in 1989, that the cold war came to an end.   But the ongoing struggle of democracy and freedom to combat tyrannies and totalitarian states and global extremist social movements goes on.  

In an insightful column Peter Beinard correctly observes that the success of democracy in bringing the "lamp of freedom" to the world depends largely on how it is accomplished:

"Since the Cold War's end, three different groups of American intellectuals have been arguing about the future of global democracy. Call them the optimists, the relativists, and the militarists. The optimists, led by Francis Fukuyama, argued that democracy would spread to more and more of the globe because only it could meet people's aspirations for a better life. The relativists, led by Samuel Huntington, denied that democracy was a universal creed, and argued that the more the U.S. pushed it, the more civilizations would clash. Finally, the militarists, led by Robert Kagan, argued that democracy could spread further, but only if American power did, too.

In the last few years, the relativists and militarists have had the optimists on the ropes. The great "third wave" of democratization that washed across Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and parts of Africa in the 1980s and 1990s has crested and begun to recede. According to Freedom House, which grades countries on how free they are, liberty has declined every year for the last four. For relativists, this is nothing to weep about: Russia is reasserting control over its authoritarian sphere; China is asserting control over its, and the fact that America can't, or won't, do much about it is good for world peace. For the militarists, it's a calamity: America must return to the confrontational policies of the Bush era or the frontiers of freedom will continue to recede. But whether they welcome authoritarianism's return or rue it, the relativists and militarists both believe that democracy and American power must march hand in hand."

In this way, a cold war defined by the ideologies of binary opposites was a lot less messy and complicated than the present situation, wherein now we have communism and capitalism sometimes defining politics within the same country, as in China and Vietnam, while competing tribal loyalties and views of sacred religious texts disrupt functioning if corrupt governments at home and abroad.   For make no mistake about it, American politics is itself torn apart by the same sorts of political tensions and economic forces that tear apart other nations throughout the world.   If nothing else, the globalization of everything combined with shared Internet access as well as and newer, cheaper forms of mass communication has brought into our homes as well as into the hands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Yemen, and Indonesia, ideas about extremist politics and the success of resistance strategies.

Yet within Kennedy's 1961 memorable speech is another plea, a language and call to unity that bears remembering, if only because if the long echo of it were applied to today's political divisions--not between Communists and Capitalists, but between Tea Party Republicans and Progressive Democrats--the words would still ring true:

"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, the command of Isaiah -- to "undo the heavy burdens, and [to] 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 are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved."

Of course we look at those fine words today and probably do not have much hope of seeing their fruition.   Kennedy, too, felt the same way. His words:  

"All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

This week, as we recall John Fitzgerald Kennedy's iconic speech, let us also find in it once again the inspiration to work together to solve our nation's problems.   Because this time around, it's not an ideological power half way around the world that will bury us by angry shoe or nuclear hammer, instead, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "America will never be destroyed from the outside; if we falter and lose our freedoms it will be because we destroyed ourselves."

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H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)
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