It was January 20, 1961 and I was sitting in my small office at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was a graduate student and instructor in economics. Between classes, I turned on the radio to hear the Inaugural Speech of our newly-elected Thirty-Fifty President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. JFK's fourteen-minute Address to the Nation was a marvelous call to action from a new generation of American leadership, and like so many young Americans, I fully welcomed his sentiments and his words -- until, near the end of the speech, he uttered its most memorable line:
"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
Hearing those words, I was struck with their similarity to what was called the Organic or Teutonic Theory of the State: people exist to serve their governments, and not the other way around. That Theory had been used throughout history to justify some of the worst excesses of tyranny; if people are means rather than ends, they have few if any rights and are merely tools of higher authority. That Theory had been used, not so long before JFK's speech, to justify the Nazi tyranny in Germany which ultimately led to atrocities, to World War II, and to the deaths of some fifty million.
Of course, I knew that JFK did not intend any such implications -- in truth, the positive side of his stirring words led to such initiatives as the Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America.) But I sensed, even on that day, a serious downside; the Cold War was well underway, and the witch hunt for Communists and "Commie sympathizers" in America was leading to the ruining of many lives and careers, as people were turned in to government agencies for their real or imagined beliefs.
There was a frenzy in America which was fueled by views that national supremacy overrode individual rights. This very slippery slope would be worsened by each of us asking what we could do for our nation in place of what it could do for us. JFK's words might well come back to haunt us.
So, I wrote my first-ever letter to the White House, pretty much as follows:
"Dear Mr. President, you gave a marvelous inaugural address, but one part bothers me, as it implies that Americans are means rather than ends. Should you use that part again, could you consider changing it as follows: You may well ask what your country can do for you, but you should also ask what you can do for your country! That would be a more balanced approach and would protect all of us from becoming tools of our government. Thanks for your consideration."
I don't recall ever hearing back from the White House, and doubt that JFK ever saw my correspondence. But that really doesn't matter now, fifty years later. What does matter is that America never forgets that its people -- and the people of the entire world -- must never be merely means, but rather the ends of government actions. All governments should exist, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "of, by, and for the people." That lesson is as timely today as when our Thirty Fifth President was inaugurated fifty years ago; perhaps it is even more timely now.