Welcome to our study of great American speeches delivered by great men. Transferring presidential responsibilities from one administration to the next is to be a smooth transition.
Outgoing President Eisenhower invited soon-to-be-inaugurated John F. Kennedy to the Oval Office for a final briefing. Ike’s purpose was
to familiarize Kennedy even before he took the oath of office as President of United States in America with the immediate split-second decisions he might be required to make.
Kennedy took the briefing in good stride and seemed quite pleased with Eisenhower’s willingness to better prepare him for what would inevitably lie ahead. However, neither one of the men felt any impulse to minimize the significance of the transfer of their immense responsibilities.
The following day, January 20, 1961, marked the beginning of a new era. Eisenhower attended the inauguration ceremonies of President Kennedy and felt some satisfaction in the fact that he had spared nothing in assisting his successor in the matters of formidable responsibility. The campaign slogan, “I Like Ike” captured America’s attention during the 1952 presidential campaign.
At a time when the United States was facing an uncertain future, a seemingly unending Korean War and the threat of Soviet military action in Europe, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower rose from the travails of World War II to lead our nation into a renewed awakening following the most globally destructive event in world history. A victorious military leader and a genuinely likable man, “Ike” was better prepared than any other to bring peace and prosperity to America.
As a genuine American hero at the close of World War II, Dwight Eisenhower rode an enormous wave of popularity into the White House
seven years later as the 34th President of the United States. From his inaugural on Tuesday, January 20, 1953, to his farewell address on
January 17, 1961, Eisenhower is remembered as a good and determined man, even a great man, who is remembered as much for his personal magnetism as for his aura of competence and command. However, his middle-of-the-road politics to maintain the status quo, can be construed as one of missed opportunities. He was revered for “keeping the peace” during the critical Cold War concerns, but he lost the opportunity to sign a strong nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union.
President Eisenhower’s press secretary, Jim Hagarty, expressed Eisenhower’s greatest achievement was in “getting people to compromise divergent views without anyone’s surrender of principle.” He commanded men in combat and led them in peace.
Greatness is in the eyes of the beholder. Greatness of self is rare, indefinable, and unpredictable. It is not necessary to describe him as a
great president. After all, he was elected to serve our country, a job the people were confident he could handle, possibly better than anyone else under the circumstances.
One historian said, “Americans will be fortunate if they can accord their future presidents trust and belief equal to that of the millions who
expressed it so often in the fifties, the simple but eloquent phrase: ’I Like Ike’.”
On January 17, 1961, three days before John Fitzgerald Kennedy was to be sworn in as our 35th President, Eisenhower addressed the nation for his final time. He warned all Americans that we “face a hostile ideology, global in scope, atheistic and character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” He warned that the threatened danger would be “of infinite duration.”
Because of that, he further stated “we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast professions.” Faced with a combination of a military establishment and a growing arms industry exerting them influence everywhere in government, he solemnly continued, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
At the time, our nation did not seem to take his words seriously Eisenhower’s last words grew in importance during the Vietnam crisis. The former military hero, turned father figure, was simply guarding “his family” that he grew to love throughout his years of service.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into a family of privilege May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Massachusetts—a family his father, Joseph Kennedy, famously called the “most exclusive club in the world.” Yet he did not use that privilege to escape service in World War II.
Deployed to the Pacific Theater, he saved the lives of several of his crew after his torpedo boat, the PT-109, after it was rammed broadside by a Japanese destroyer during night action. Although he received the Purple Heart as well as the Navy and Marine Corps medals, JFK never considered himself to be a World War II hero.
Kennedy’s Harvard University education catapulted him into the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate in 1953, representing Massachusetts.
His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage", published in 1960 “resounds with timeless lessons on the most cherished of virtues and is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit.”
On January 20, 1960, Kennedy entered a crowded press conference and announced his candidacy for President of the United States. In spite of his growing popularity, detractors cited his youth and Catholic religion as insurmountable obstacles for a Democratic victory. To have a chance at the nomination, he had to perform well in the important presidential primaries.
Serious doubts increased, but with the support of his family, Kennedy handily won the primary over Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. After
securing Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate, Kennedy flew from Los Angeles to his home on Cape Cod to spend time with his family. Presidential debates soon followed. On the evening of September 26, 1960, Kennedy easily won the first of four televised debates with Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon on national television. The rest is history.
On Inauguration Day, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard M. Nixon stepped onto the platform and took their
seats as the Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief,” John F. Kennedy walked onto the Capitol steps to the sound of “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
To bring a sense of pageantry with pomp and ceremony, Kennedy wore a cutaway coat and silk top hat. He wanted to use the moment to appeal to the imagination to a heightened level of feeling, tradition, and majesty. He wanted to set a tone of dignity for the nation.
After the indication given by Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, the nation’s unofficial poet laureate, the eighty-five-year-old Robert Frost recited his poem, “The Gift Outright,” providing the most stirring moment of the inauguration.The crowd responded with a thunderous applause.
At nine minutes before one o’clock, Chief Justice Earl Warren asked the new president to place his left hand on the family Bible, to raise his right hand, and repeat the oath of office.
President Kennedy stepped to the lectern, in his distinct Boston accent, delivered his Inaugural Address with these stirring words:
We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end as well as a beginning – signifying 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 globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.
Referring to “the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself,” Kennedy continued with these now familiar words:
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assume a more fruitful life for all mankind?
Will you join in that historical 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 responsibility – I 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 it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
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.