John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 JFK: Hope for the Future
  • 1:43 The Speech
  • 2:41 Foreign Policy & the Cold War
  • 4:37 Ask Not What You Can…
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. We will explore the historical context in which the address took place, and we will examine the central themes contained in the address.

JFK: Hope for the Future

On a cold but bright morning, January 20, 1961, the youngest man ever to be elected President of the United States delivered his first and only inaugural address. As the crowd heard him speak that morning, they had every reason to be hopeful of the future. The new president, a Democrat, was replacing Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the Republican president for the past eight years (between 1953 and 1961). John F. Kennedy was youthful at only 43 years old, good-looking, and embodied Americans' hopes for the future. He brought with him an energy and an optimism that were contagious.

The 1950s were characterized by a bitter tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, commonly called the Cold War. The Cold War was not an actual military conflict fought with armies and weapons, but a conflict of ideas, threats, and competition. The Space Race and the nuclear arms race were in full swing, and many Americans were worried the Soviets were winning. But now with Kennedy in charge, many Americans held out hope that the 1960s would be different. They believed Kennedy could make the decade one of peace and progress.

We know this was not to be. In November 1963, the young President was cut down by an assassin's bullet. Hope died with him, and by the mid-1960s America was on the verge of a social revolution. Discontentment and rebellion came to characterize the second half of the decade. Within the space of just a few years, hope for the future had been replaced with disillusionment and cynicism.

The Speech

Now that we've looked at the context surrounding Kennedy's presidency, let's look specifically at his 13-minute inaugural address and some of the specific things he said. In his address on that cold January morning he stated, 'The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans...' This was a bold assertion of his confidence and his ability to lead the nation in a new direction. Kennedy presented his youth not as a liability, but as an asset. His speech was short, direct, and to the point. The address did not focus on domestic affairs. Instead, it was almost exclusively centered on foreign policy.

Critics of Kennedy's speech have suggested that he missed a golden opportunity to address the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle that took place during the 1950s and 1960s aimed at securing equal rights for African-Americans. To be fair, Kennedy did commit his administration to protecting 'human rights... at home and around the world,' but this was a fairly vague reference.

Foreign Policy & the Cold War

Kennedy made bold foreign policy declarations. He promised to 'support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.' By foe, Kennedy was referring primarily to communist countries like the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Yet, Kennedy was willing to be pragmatic. He reached out to the Soviet Union and expressed his desire to reduce tensions with his statement: 'Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.' Shortly after becoming President, negotiations would take place, as Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus narrowly avoiding World War III.

The nuclear arms race and the threat of nuclear war was a prominent theme in his speech. For example, he made comments suggesting 'both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.' The possibility of a nuclear holocaust was a very real fear in 1961, and Kennedy was adamant about preventing it.

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