The Kennedy Style: Examining J.F.K.’S Inaugural Address

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Table of Contents

  • The Cold War
  • Kennedy Combating Communism
  • The Election of 1960
  • Conclusion: The Rhetorical Situation

John F. Kennedy was born and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts with his mother, father, and eight siblings. His father, Joseph Kennedy, frequently emphasized the importance of winning to his children throughout their early lives and John, often called Jack, quickly began to share his competitive fire. He experienced pressure from a young age to be politically successful due to his family’s involvement in government; his grandfather served as both a congressman and as the mayor of Boston and his father was chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and an ambassador to Great Britain. Kennedy visited his father during his appointment as ambassador and conducted research on Britain’s lack of preparation for fighting Germany in World War II. He ultimately used this information for his senior thesis and even went on to have it published as a best-selling novel, sparking both his talent for discourse and his steadfast interest in foreign affairs.

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After graduating from Harvard University, Kennedy worked as a journalist for Hearst Newspaper, further strengthening his communication skills, before joining the Navy with his older brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr. While John thrived, having been awarded medals for heroism, Joseph unfortunately died in an explosion. Joe had been designated by his family as one who would become the president someday, so in the aftermath of his death, John chased his family’s aspirations himself. He ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1946 and won the election easily. However, after serving three terms he had become frustrated by his work as he wanted to make a larger impact than Congress would allow.

In an attempt to gain a larger political platform, Kennedy ran against Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge for his seat in the Senate. Despite Congress being predominantly controlled by Republicans, Kennedy emerged victorious and gained significant pull from the Democratic Party. Much of Kennedy’s win was attributed to his intelligent and charismatic personality, which enabled him to sway his audience. Shortly after being elected, he wrote a persuasive book about the political integrity of several U.S. senators who bravely fought for issues that they cared about despite controversy. The book, Profiles in Courage, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and hugely enforced Kennedy’s reputation as a strong rhetor (White, 2013, p. 228). John F. Kennedy would go on to utilize his skills as a war hero, scholar, and communicator in his famous inaugural address of January 20, 1961. The speech was intended primarily to ease the nation’s concerns over communism and foreign policy and inspire unity and patriotism amongst Americans, so it being his inauguration actually acted as a constraint Kennedy faced.

The Cold War

While Kennedy had just begun to step into the political scene in 1946, tensions were rising between the Soviet Union and the United States. Despite the alliance between them during World War II, Americans were threatened by the spread of communism and instituted a policy of containment to prevent Soviet influence. The U.S. government abandoned its tradition of staying out of European affairs when they established The Truman Doctrine, which promised aid to foreign governments endangered by communist overthrow, and The Marshall Plan, which provided economic assistance to politically unstable governments that would be easy targets for the USSR to takeover.

As a means of containing communist expansion, a National Security Council Report, NSC–68, backed Truman’s suggestion of using military forces and many officials encouraged the use of atomic weapons. In 1949, China lost to the Soviet Union and became communist, further increasing the threat of expansion as they are the most populous country. North Korea invaded South Korea and the United States sent troops and military aid, however newly communist China joined North Korea in support, resulting in three years of bloodshed until peace was made in 1953. The United States participated in more global intervention when North Vietnam defeated the French administration in an attempt to unify the nation under one communist regime, like the Soviet Union. The U.S. sent military and economic aid to South Vietnam’s government to prevent communist expansion, however efforts were unsuccessful and the war waged on for nearly another twenty years. Ultimately, the decision to intervene in the Cold War would shape the United States foreign policy for the next four decades as the government continued to provide economic and military aid around the world.

Kennedy Combating Communism

Among those in support of using atomic weapons against the Soviety Union was Kennedy, who, when speaking on foreign policy, warned of the enemy’s growing missile arsenal and promised to restore American nuclear forces during his campaign for president in 1960. As a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Kennedy developed a platform to communicate his ideas on diplomatic and military policies and persuaded many Americans to agree that they were on the wrong side of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union (Selverstone, 2018). Furthermore, he even insulted President Eisenhower and his administration for allowing pro-Sovient government to establish in Cuba. With the fear of communism spreading and the overall tensions regarding international relations, foreign policy debates took over American politics.

The Election of 1960

The campaign of 1960 was dominated by Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviety Union and thus, foreign policy took precedence over any other issue. In fact, according to a poll, seventy-one percent of Americans thought it to be the most important topic in the election (Sarantakes, 1999, pg. 167). At the start of his campaign against Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, Kennedy was undoubtedly the underdog as people thought him to be young and inexperienced. Additionally, people worried that Kennedy’s Catholicism would prevent him from acting in the best interests of the country due to allegiance to the Pope. However, Kennedy was eventually able to showcase his rhetoric and scholar when he challenged Nixon to four televised presidential debates. The first debate would shape the election as Kennedy surprised the nation, he “held the initiative and drove home one debating point after another while maintaining a dignified and alert appearance” (Williams, pg. 27).

Although Nixon redeemed himself in poise and preparedness for the following three debates, the impact of the first had already set in and “Kennedy’s public address experiences were equal to ‘his political development in shaping his public persona’, which was a complex ‘mix of attractiveness, relevant message, and voter needs’” (Dionisopoulos, 2002, pg. 359). Kennedy’s rhetorical skills enabled him to strongly establish his personality in public minds by the end of October 1960. He was consistently greeted by enormous crowds everywhere that he campaigned; the rallies’ “spontaneous enthusiasm” characterized Kennedy’s interactions with the American public (Williams, pg. 28). Being such a strong communicator and charming individual helped Kennedy gain substantial support for his ideas, ultimately leading to his win of the 1960 Election and making him the model of the rhetorical president, who uses their communication and charisma, especially in times of crises, to influence the public and shape American life (Wills, 2017).

Conclusion: The Rhetorical Situation

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural address at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. to an audience of nearly one million people who gathered to watch in addition to it being nationally televised. The dominant purpose of the speech was to address the issues of foreign policy as Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew along with American fear of communism. Kennedy aimed to unify the nation and encourage a confident patriotic attitude in the midst of the nuclear age, among other issues that awaited him in office. Though Kennedy was able to respond to the exigencies at the time with his speech, the situation was not without constraints. Kennedy was limited by the fact that it was his inauguration because he couldn’t address every important issue or focus solely on inspiring the citizens, as everyone was there to celebrate his presidency and not to discuss the Cold War. Nonetheless, Kennedy utilized his experiences as a scholar, journalist, war hero, novelist, and government official in conjunction with his innate talent as a communicator to deliver an address that would seldom fade in the minds and hearts of the nation, who still remember it as one of the greatest speeches of all time.

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