|This Week in American History
January 1622, 1961
President Kennedy Delivers His Inaugural Address in Troubled Times
The memory of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's inaugural address is usually focussed on one memorable phrase that he used"And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for youask what you can do for your country." The optimism of America's youngest President was reflected in the rising young generation of that time, many of whom went into public service, especially the Peace Corps, to try to make a positive difference in the world. Yet it is now often forgotten that when Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961, he and the nation faced an increasingly difficult and perilous situation, one that he called the "balance of terror."
The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a frantic arms race, especially involving atomic weapons. On September 19, 1957 the U.S. conducted its first underground atomic explosion, and the next year, on January 3, the U.S. Air Force announced the formation of the first two squadrons armed with intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The launching of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite, clearly visible when it passed over the United States, sped up America's efforts to develop rockets which could carry payloads into space.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at Camp David in 1960, however, and the amicable talks gave hope for a future solution. But on May 5, 1960, the Soviets announced the downing of an unarmed U.S. plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers over Russian territory. Two days later, the U.S. admitted that the plane was on a spy mission. Khrushchev used the incident to kill the upcoming Paris Summit Conference, and also cancelled his invitation to President Eisenhower to visit Moscow.
During the same time period, matters were coming to a head in Germany. In 1959, U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter had returned from the Geneva Conference to announce that the nations of the West were convinced that the Soviet Union's goal was to absorb West Berlin and eventually all of Germany into the Communist bloc. Provocations from East Germany followed, culminating, in August of 1961, in the building of the Berlin Wall.
Also in the same period, U.S. relations with Cuba were deteriorating. Beginning with a stiff protest to Cuba on January 11, 1960 regarding confiscation of American property, the war of words escalated when the U.S. State Department accused the Cuban Government on June 4 of undertaking a "campaign of slander." By October 20, the State Department had placed an embargo on exports to Cuba, excepting some medicines and foodstuffs. By the time John Kennedy was elected President on November 8, there was already a plan afoot for Cuban exiles in the United States to invade Fidel Castro's Cuba, and on January 3, before the inauguration, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with the island.
On the positive side, the peaceful use of nuclear power and the space program had made impressive strides. On February 8, 1957, the U.S. had pledged full support for plans by the European Atomic Energy Community for the establishment of an atomic energy industry in Europe within ten years. The U.S. itself had developed nuclear-powered ships and submarines, and on November 18, 1959, the Atomic Energy Commission announced the development of a small nuclear reactor which could provide electrical power for space vehicles. Earlier that year, on April 9, the first seven astronauts were chosen from among military test pilots by NASA.
Although President Kennedy mentioned the arms race and the threat posed by nuclear weapons in his inaugural address, he chose to emphasize the positive actions that could break the grip of the "balance of terror" on both America and the Soviet Union. He began his address by saying: "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedomsymbolizing an end as well as a beginningsignifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globethe belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.
"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 Americansborn in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritageand 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.
"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, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
"This much we pledgeand more.
"To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can dofor we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
"To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, 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. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedomand to remember that in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
"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, for whatever period is requirednot because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
"To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledgeto convert our good words into good deedsin a new alliance for progressto assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.
"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 supportto prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invectiveto strengthen its shield of the new and the weakand to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
"Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that 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.
"We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
"But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present courseboth sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
"So let us begin anewremembering 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 armsand 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 Isaiahto 'undo the heavy burdens [and] 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.
"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.
"In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
"Now the trumpet summons us againnot as a call to bear arms, though arms we neednot as a call to battle, though embattled we arebut as a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation'a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
"Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibilityI welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve itand the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
"And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for youask what you can do for your country.
"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.
"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God's work must truly be our own."