A Deconstruction of JFK's Inaugural Address

John F. Kennedy’s election as President of the United States in 1961 represented a significant shift in the political and national landscape. As the youngest elected President to be sworn into office, expectations were high on the eve of his inauguration. Although many now associate John F. Kennedy as a champion for civil liberties and ideals, it was not until he gave his infamous inaugural address did those values truly come to fruition. Several quotes throughout his speech directly communicate his optimism and values of peace, duty, and responsibility for America in the face of the nuclear age.

Kennedy, who was succeeding one of the oldest presidents in office, signified a substantial change in the political scene not only because of his youth, but also because he was the first Catholic president. More importantly, his administration was expected to challenge the arising complications with the Soviet Union's nuclear strength and the spurring of the Cold War. As the pressing issues heated even further, Kennedy’s inaugural address was an opportune, kairotic moment to stir American fervor in the face of adversity.

"For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago."

This statement alone serves as reassurance of how sacred he takes his duties and as an attempt to appeal to and garner more supporters. Because Kennedy was such a unique candidate in comparison to previous ones, the mentioning of “the same solemn oath” is an implication that he will rightfully fulfill expectations and succeed the legacy paved by his predecessors. Although he may not look like previous presidents, he is the same individual that is meant to address the concerns of the American people and meet the challenges of the time – just like every president before him. Additionally, Kennedy’s utilization of the term “our” in the statement is a clear indication of his ideal of unity and familial relationships. It reinforces the idea that everyone, including himself and the audience, shares in the rich history of America and takes part in it.

"To those old allies…we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends/ To those new states…we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny/ To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves/ To our sister republics…we offer a special pledge--to convert our good words into good deeds--in a new alliance for progress--to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty/ To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support…"

Kennedy heavily reiterates the sentiment that peace is not only the best option between conflicting nations, but also the only thing they can all manage to afford. He essentially commits the United States to seeking peace among these factions and ultimately warns that these positive changes cannot be implemented if nations are “overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, …alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom” (Kennedy para 13). Kennedy is charmingly entertaining the notion that peace can easily be reached with these people while simultaneously condemning the counterproductive act of war. The mere costs of developing and producing weaponry is so exorbitant and pales in comparison to the cost free act of spreading peace. Logically, avoiding war equates to families enjoying time with their loved ones and the ability to focus on domestic issues. Additionally, his mesodiplosis centered on the idea of “one” further accentuates the idea that peace is a vital component in solving the issue. He notes that, although peace “will not be finished in the first one hundred days, nor in in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this [one] Administration,” the most auspicious time would be to begin acting immediately (Kennedy para 20). He is realistically conceding that peace will not happen overnight, but is a goal that should be sought after and strived for. Rather than perpetuate the conflict and create further complications, a global coalition towards armistice and maintaining international relations would tackle hardships plaguing nations and their citizens.

“Will you join in the historic effort?

The majority of Kennedy’s claims profoundly rely on the pathetic appeals of sympathy and flattery to echo the average citizen’s responsibility in the overarching ideal of peace. He evokes the intention that anyone can contribute to the cause by suggesting that citizens more so than himself are the direct agents of change. Kennedy accomplishes this feat by first employing this rhetorical question. This question proposes that everyone has a role in modeling and facilitating peace. Tyranny and war itself can be stopped so long as people choose to seek peace in their daily lives and participate to end this tumultuous period in any way possible.

"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

The metaphor clearly compares the efforts of the American people to a light illuminating – transforming – the rest of the world. Despite how small an individual may feel in comparison to the world population, it is a conglomeration of these dedicated citizens that is the revolutionary facilitator of peace. By emphasizing the individual’s role, Kennedy is advocating that even the smallest, slightest change towards peace is a victory for America and for all.

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."

Kennedy begins to conclude his speech by posing this timeless antimetabole uttered worldwide. This memorable statement defines the pinnacle of selfless service and functions as a direct call to action. Many citizens complain about the state of their own nation and fester on what their respective governments are failing to accomplish. Thus, Kennedy is advocating for individuals to be proactive in their lives. Rather than relying on entitlement for the government and for others to solve issues, an individual should take charge within his or her own life and be free to make a change. By serving others, people are fulfilling their duty of making their nation a better place. Instead of idly waiting for the country to take care of its citizens, the citizens would be taking care of their country. The patriotism and concern for the nation displayed by citizens is a key factor that determines the ability of a society to progress even further.

Kennedy’s inaugural address is highly celebrated for conveying the rather patriotic ideas of duty and responsibility to the typical, everyday American. Peace was one of the most logical responses to the conflict plaguing the time and truly was an expansive idea that relied on individual participation. Not only was Kennedy successful in convincing everyone that he or she had an obligation to institute change, but also managed to emphasize that everyone is just as capable and essential in doing so.