Looking Back a Half Century at the Kennedy Inaugural Address

January 20, 2011

Being a baby boomer is central to my identity.  For those of us in the earliest wave of that generation, the Kennedy inauguration towers in the pantheon of select memories from our youth.  The pageant awakened us baby boomers to a large world out there and to America’s special role at a critical historic moment.  The image of a torch being passed on to a new generation, stated explicitly in the speech, was mirrored in Robert Frost struggling with his written poem against the chill wind of that day and by the presidential succession from the grandfatherly Eisenhower to a person of vigor from our parent’s generation.  Everyone from us baby boomers to the “greatest generation” to the elderly took a step up that day.

Set in the cold war, the speech dealt virtually exclusively with America’s place in the world, and the address is full of ironic passages read through the lens of 50 years of hindsight.  Kennedy proclaimed, “The world is very different now.”  That is more true today than then.  Kennedy’s words anticipate a hard struggle against communism to preserve western democracy and to avoid nuclear Armageddon.  But the speech didn’t foresee other struggles for civil rights, stable prices, the affordability of health care, and later threats from Islamic terrorism and financial market excesses and fatigue.

The Kennedy speech addresses how a strong and united America should conduct itself with other nations.  Who could have known then the extent of divisions that would intensify within the country itself across ethnic, cultural, economic, and regional lines?   America has less sense of shared history and values than it did in 1961.  Listening to the media and the drumbeat of pop culture, one might conclude that 2011 has more in common with 1861 than 1961. A phrase from Kennedy’s speech — civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof — had foreign relations in mind but could easily apply to the conduct of domestic affairs these days.  Another sentence — We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom — has no ring of truth in modern U.S. politics, where the advancement of the party isn’t every thing but rather the only thing that matters.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, American leadership in the free world was forging rapidly forward.  By mid-century, super-power hegemony had been solidified in both economic and military terms.  In the 1950s, communism posed a new challenge that put America back into a state of war and on ready alert.  But economically, it was a contest of completely unequal forces.  Kennedy’s response to this new opponent can be summarized in two passages from the inaugural.  The first is one of the most remembered lines from that or any presidential speech.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall 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.

The second quote has stood the test of time only partially and then in the limited context of preventing nuclear annihilation.

Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

As a middle school student, Kennedy’s appeal made perfect sense.  I’d learned that the United States was undefeated in war from the participation of colonists in the French and Indian War to the revolution when we were vast underdogs, and from the civil war when rebel states were not allowed to secede unilaterally to two world wars.  The Mexican and Spanish American wars had gone well, and the War of 1912 and Korean Wars, though ending in draws, had not compromised America’s immediate goals or broader principles.  I naively assumed the country would always go undefeated, and with the best economy, success was simply a matter of deploying the necessary resources, maintaining teamwork and sustaining moral will.

The world and America’s role in the world are very different now.  Vietnam ended the undefeated season.  Watergate slammed confidence in the integrity of elected politicians.  Double-digit inflation damaged faith in the technocratic competence of government and created an environment for a movement that saw government not as a means for solving problems but rather a corrupting cancer in the body of free capitalism that must be downsized, especially at the national level, to its smallest and least influential level.  Not everybody shares the conservative philosophy, but it has dominated domestic politics for the past thirty years and continues to gain increasing favor. While the U.S. citizenry has been engaged in an escalating domestic cold war over its cultural differences, other energy has been spent on containing international terrorism in armed conflicts that have no end.  The economy has become seriously imbalanced, and vital  infrastructure has been neglected in favor of other priorities.  Overall performance has been atypically weak since the beginning of this century and the nation’s people fear that even if terrorism is checked, the torch is again being passed on, this time not to a younger generation but to other nations with rapidly growing economies and holdings of financial wealth.

Kennedy spoke in an era without budget constraint when man could be sent to the moon and back in just a few years once such a mission was defined.  Priorities back then were driven by desire, not cost.  That world is now gone.

Copyright Larry Greenberg 2011.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.



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