Darkness in Kennedy's Noontide Vision

By Andrew Sprung

Last week, I took the invitation proffered by various media and viewed John F. Kennedy's inaugural address to mark its 50th birthday.

Have I ever viewed or read the speech in its entirety? I doubt it.  Naturally, the impression of it I'd derived from snippets and by osmosis was brought up short by the reality. The speech surprised me in several ways.

The overall surprise is that Kennedy's fabled optimism, and idealism, and literally shoot-the-moon can-do-ism, is tempered by, or rather grounded in, a sense of peril that by current standards seems almost apocalyptic. Throughout the speech (text here), Kennedy balances this sense of peril with hope, or rather bids to overcome the peril by appealing to hope. This tension  is laid out at the outset:

For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.

Of course, as Kennedy took office, all-out nuclear war was indeed a real and present and terrifying danger, so perhaps my "surprise" is just silly. But some part of the mind still imagines "Camelot" as a sunlit interval, and that part is a bit jarred to note that Kennedy began by warning off the whirlwind.

Other surprises -- or aspects of the global one:

1. At its beginning, the speech strikes an almost bellicose and beleaguered note. The memory of world war is fresh, the danger of nuclear war is front-of-mind, and the potential enemy must be put on notice:

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 Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and 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, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

A president today might speak of fostering the spread of liberty; Kennedy sketches almost a rearguard action to assure its survival.  Liberty today is not perceived to face a global threat as it was at the height of the Cold War. The famous "bear any burden, pay any price" should be understood in this context -- as a price that must be paid if the world is to be saved from slavery or destruction.

2. The speech is entirely focused on a global mission. Not a single domestic issue is mentioned. Indeed, until the famous end of the speech, Kennedy is not so much addressing Americans as addressing the rest of the world in Americans' name, in a sense modeling the burden he asks Americans to share.  Immediately following the passages cited above, Kennedy addresses the world, piece by piece:

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share...

To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free...

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery...

To our sister republics south of our border...

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations...

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary...

That part of the speech addressed to the world beyond U.S. borders takes up fully a third of the whole. The next part, addressed directly to the Soviet bloc, takes up another 20+%. Only after those two audiences have been addressed does Kennedy turn his direct, sustained attention to "My fellow Americans."

3. "Bear any burden, pay any price" is directed as much to the Soviets as to Americans -- and to specific purpose. The heart of the speech is a proffered olive branch. To lend force to the proposal of peaceful cooperation between the two poles of a bipolar world, Kennedy must establish both the peril of full-scale conflict and the United States' determination to "assure the survival and the success of liberty." Long before Reagan coined the phrase, Kennedy accordingly promises peace through strength:

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.

4. Alas, I have lost the reference, but recently a blogger noted this speech's apparent debt to William James* remarkable essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" (discussed by James here, and by yours truly here), which seeks a way to rechannel the incomparable concentration of effort that nations and individuals invest in combat to more constructive ends.  The speech does indeed follow the path of James' argument. What lends "The Moral Equivalent" its force is James' ability to convey both the full destructive horror of modern warfare (in hindsight, this part of the 1906 essay seems prophetic) and an appreciation for the high pitch of virtue that war can bring out of some people. Kennedy, casting his generation as "tempered by war" even as he raises the specter of the complete destruction of human life, puts forward a very Jamesian proposal to rechannel military effort:

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course--both 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 anew--remembering 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 arms--and 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 Isaiah--to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to 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.

There follows an assertion that these goals will require more than a lifetime to fulfill (as Obama has suggested about his goal of abolishing nuclear weapons).  It is only then that Kennedy turns to "my fellow citizens" and asks them to enlist in the moral equivalent of war:

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in 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 again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are--but 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.

6.  We think of Kennedy's "ask not" as in a sense the ultimate nationalist call: a summons to Americans at high tide of the nation's sense of mission. It is that. But again, Kennedy was addressing the world at large and the Cold War adversary in particular fully as directly as his fellow Americans. That is as true at the coda as throughout the speech:

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

The call to service would not resonate so profoundly through the decades were it not so firmly yoked to a global mission.

Andrew Sprung, a media consultant and student of rhetoric, blogs at xpostfactoid.

*This post originally stated that Henry James wrote "The Moral Equivalent of War." We regret the error.