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:
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.
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...
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.