"My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy
Those words still ring true today nearly sixty years after Kennedy spoke them on his inauguration day. John F. Kennedy's inaugural address was one of the shortest ever, but it's also widely regarded as one of the most powerful. He spoke on the broad topics of liberty, peace and democratic freedoms, and addressed his words to both Americans and people abroad. A major underlying theme is the role of the United States as a world leader in furthering these liberties to other regions and countries. He also emphasized the desire for peace, including calling for Soviet cooperation to end the threat of war and nuclear destruction, while simultaneously underscoring U.S. intentions to lead and work from a position of strength.
President Kennedy emphasized the significance of personal and national freedom as the core tenets of democracy. In an era when the fight for civil rights was at the forefront, the importance of freedom as a key theme is evident throughout his speech. Examples include his reference to the election and inauguration as a "celebration of freedom" and in his commitment to "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."
Poverty and Oppression
Kennedy addressed a worldwide audience with his calls for nations to band together to lift people out of poverty and free them from colonial or tyrannical oppression. He presented these calls as a moral imperative for Americans and all people of faith. He also urged the United Nations to become an activist body, not just a forum for speeches, in its efforts to abolish poverty, colonialism and oppression throughout the world. These key themes are captured in the famous phrase "trumpet summons us again ... struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself."
The Cold War was the key international dynamic of the time, pitting the former Soviet Union and its allies against the United States and its western allies. Both sides sought to maintain or expand their influence in regions around the world as well as through the dangerous expansion of nuclear arsenals. Kennedy used his inaugural speech to warn the Soviets and their allies against pushing the world to the brink of a possible nuclear war again. He also made clear U.S. intentions to protect freedom and democracy in the western hemisphere against Soviet incursions or influence-seeking.
Call to Greatness
The speech both started and ended with Kennedy's call to Americans to rise up to greatness and reach their full potential, both as individuals and as a nation. He stated explicitly that, "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans" to fight for the expansion of democratic freedoms and prosperity throughout the world, and to counter any efforts by others to erode human or civil rights around the world. He included one of his most famous lines: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." He ended his speech by reminding Americans, "Here on earth God's work must truly be our own."