John F. Kennedy. Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

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John F. Kennedy. Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

The inaugural address of the new president is one of the most important speeches in the United States. Initially, such a speech was addressed to the participants of the ceremony only, later, it began to be perceived as a kind of political declaration of the new United States leader, addressed to all Americans and even the inhabitants of the planet. Such speech traditionally gathers world attention since it is believed that in addition to the traditional diplomatic formulas, it contains hints as head of state intends to proceed for four years. Since George Washington finished the ceremony speech utterance special or later called Inaugural Address, it has also become a tradition. Later, it began to be published in the newspapers (since 1857 accompanied by the President’s photo), and with the invention of radio and television it began to be broadcasted all over the US, and later all over the world. The first inaugural address to be broadcasted on TV in color was the Address of John F. Kennedy, considered the best speech of the President to his people ever. Therefore, current paper is to discuss the key reasons for the speech to be such a memorable both from the viewpoint of politics and as a masterpiece of public literature.

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On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the US President. He was the youngest elected president in the previous history of the country (Schlesinger 4). The election campaign in 1960 was under the banner of the need for generational change in the leadership of the country. The slogan has found a comprehensive response among Americans, especially as the White House outgoing President Eisenhower had already turned 70 years old, and he was the oldest president in the American history. Country craved for the appearance of younger and more active managers in the political arena. According to many American media outlets, a decisive role in Kennedy’s victory in the elections has played not the expectations for “strong leadership” but his appearance on TV comparing to other major candidate of competing political party – Richard Nixon (Schlesinger 179). Partly because of the same reason, Kennedy’s inaugural address was originally called a model of political eloquence, and some phrases from it are quoted so often that eventually became almost a mandatory component of the set of official statements of government officials of the US and other countries.

In his inaugural address, which Kennedy formulated with his brilliant reviewer Theodore Sorensen taking into account foreign policy, he had clearly shown his concern and ambition of the president (Winter 26). On the one hand, he warned against the impending destruction of mankind by nuclear weapons. On the other hand, he appealed to the vitality of the American nation, which aims to protect freedom: the whole world should know that the Americans “pay any price, will put any burden, suffer any deprivation, support any friend, and oppose any foe” to carry out this mission (Kennedy). Global confrontation brings “the highest hour of danger,” and the United States should maintain “a long twilight struggle.” In addition, this speech is extremely famous for the following constantly quoted phrase: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” (Kennedy). The US President called each of his compatriots to take personal responsibility for the ongoing competition presence. The address made a good impression, but not all had favorably perceived it. Its apocalyptic overtones, emphasizing the dedication and far-reaching hidden commitments to allies and “friends” disturbed some attentive listeners (Winter 40).

Speech Language Analysis

Kennedy’s inaugural address became an outstanding literature peace due to various reasons. First, the usage of appealing words and constructions, the choice of words and extensive use of the first person plural – “we” instead of single “I” made this speech as it is. The speech is constructed on the basis of wishes, asks, advice, and directives, but not promises and empty words. In fact, Kennedy said what American people wanted to hear from the country’s leader (Winter 28).

The election speech of J. F. Kennedy is very compressed, uninformative and does not provide the broad comments about his planned presidential program and the current situation in the country. It performs a purely performative function. At the lexical level and in terms of word choice the words with positive connotations and the modal verbs make and shall (“must make a fateful decision”) receive widespread use. Kennedy extensively uses the adjective “every”, which enhances the rapport of the speech (“every American”, “every state”, etc.). America and Americans are defined as peaceful, responsible, conscious and brave (Whitehead III 670).

On the grammatical level, frequent use of superlatives: the most powerful, to do my utmost, best hope makes the speech powerful and appealing. Additionally, designs with value appeal and direct the peremptory designs with value appeal and invitation create the sense of belonging and encourages the listener to follow the proposed doctrine: let us, ask what you ask what you can do. These constructions lend credibility and the credibility of the statements (Winter 35).

Stylistic component is realized in the use of parallel structures and duplication. Frequent syntactic rhetorical figures of the political speeches make certain reflections especially memorable (in Kennedy “… our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace… ”). Stylistic devices, for example, chiasmus, act as an additional manipulation with the voters’ mind and demonstrate the ability of the speaker to work with literature tool and linguistic instruments. It must be noted that the frequent repetition and variation of certain words and the family of words, saying the same in different ways (lawful state (state of law), civil society (public society), democratic institutes (democratic institutions) are fixed in the mind of man. It is an effective technique of suggestion. The discussed inaugural addresses a close contact inherent to the political speeches of this type (Winter 40). It is realized by the constant use of integration symbols the pronoun “we” in the sense of “we-sharing”, our people, around us, the American people, problems unite us, citizens of the world. To enhance the stylistic effect used hyperbole reception: “… let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.” Metaphors, similes, and especially quotations from the Bible prevail in the speech. Talking about the usage of Bible language, it was a clever manipulation with the listeners’ mind since America, being a religious nation, approves referring to the God’s language (Winter 31). In addition, being the first catholic president, Kennedy had shown that despite he is of different confession than the majority of American citizens; he is also religious and does not aim to dissent the Word of God.

The analysis of mentioned above questions clearly identifies the functional levels of political language used by Kennedy that, in fact, boil down to three components: the wording and explanation of political position (orientation), search and rallying supporters (integration), the fight with the enemy (agonal). Accordingly, in the semiotic space of political discourse three types of signs can be distinguished: agonistic sign and signs of orientation and integration (Winter 44). Therefore, by using those classical tools for appealing and convincing the audience successfully, Kennedy’s speech became the masterpiece of political public speaking. The analyzed speech sounds convincingly as well as recreates the image of the “American dream”, which has a great future.

The Content

As it was said earlier, the most memorable phrase from the whole address, which was already quoted, is “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” (Kennedy). Nevertheless, the main content of the speech was not a call to work for the good of society, but the call to hold out and win the Cold War. The main motive is the alarm and the state of constant readiness. “Again we trumpet calls”, – said Kennedy, mentioning “the burden of a long twilight struggle,” and that “indefinite equilibrium terrible threats.” He spoke of the need to eradicate poverty and disease not in the United States, but in other countries. Poverty and disease are the breeding ground for communism. In short, the pathos of the speech was an appeal to fight against the Soviet threat (Schlesinger 202).

The President did not use in his speech the word “war,” extensively, but the thought that no one can predict with precision what steps need to be taken and what costs or casualties will be incurred to eliminate this crisis means the determination of the American leadership and the call to Americans to be prepared for any eventuality (Schlesinger 165).

The other main objective was to improve and stabilize the economy and restore the superiority of the United States in the field of nuclear missile weapons. As in the pre-election speech, nominating the candidate for the presidency, in the inaugural message Kennedy used words with the most common semantics for political writing. These were “freedom”, “peace”, “hope”, “faith”, “civil rights”, “pride”, “upgrade”, “change”, “revolution” and “order.” These words were the core of ideological and themed speech of the new president. Main inaugural messages were as follows:

  • Noble and historic role of the US as a defender of human rights, peace and order: “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 …” (Kennedy);
  • The intention to lead the country as the Lord commanded (important religious component to be explained further): “… the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God” (Kennedy);
  • The problem of choice, the need for the right choice: “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom” (Kennedy);
  • The problem of external and internal policies (foreign policy prevails – Cold War);
  • The arms race, the threat of the Soviet Union the world, bringing order and approval of human rights and freedoms in the new state: “… undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free” (Kennedy);
  • Formation of internal policies on economic growth, the emphasis on awareness of the American people, the manifestation of their best qualities, brought up in the course of history (the historical aspect is given much attention by highlighting the importance of courage, judgment, integrity and dedication in the pace of the American history (Schlesinger 202-300).


Memorable speech was the fourth shortest inaugural speech in the history – only fifty-two proposals, one thousand three hundred and fifty-five words, that is, five or six typewritten pages. Kennedy managed 15 minutes to inspire a whole nation; he considered this should be enough to paint his path and doctrine in color. Kennedy instructed his speech-writer Ted Sorensen not to be sprayed out since he did not want people to think he is too talkative. The result was the most concise inaugural address at the time – 1355 words. President John F. Kennedy together Sorenson formulated good inaugural speech – elevating, non-partisan, contain an element of fantasy and based on the basic ethical principles. Sorenson also noted that especially colorful phrases that will be cited decades later are very rarely advanced to prepare, but they managed to do it (Schlesinger 70). Kennedy knew that only the powerful serve, carefully worded suggestions and reasonably brief speech can captivate the imagination of the audience. Taking into account that the average length of the presidential inaugural speech was approximately 2300 words, Kennedy did his best in shortening (Whitehead III 671). Using only 1355 words (which is even fewer that the current paper), Kennedy expressed the idea of ​​freedom and free will (Schlesinger 940). He used eleven word variations with the root “new” or “update”; he four times used the word “generation”, and three times the word “revolution”. Besides, the words “earth”, “planet”, and “world” are used fourteen times. Such extensive word use says about the prevailing steps in his doctrine and highlights the concepts he cared most.

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It was, perhaps, the last American political rhetoric inaugural speech, which gave the audience the feeling that they have chosen a really special person endowed with sublime thinking for the presidency. Subsequently, after Kennedy, the style of presidential speeches had changed. Presidents now are trying to show that they are ordinary guys, the same as all their common citizens (Whitehead III 671). It all started with Kennedy, and it is another reason for this speech to be considered as political writing and literature masterpiece.


Concluding all mentioned above, it is possible to say that Kennedy’s speech satisfies all the mentioned qualities and even more. The speech is concise, smooth, appealing, elevating and corresponds the electors’ expectations. Kennedy’s task was to ensure American people that they made the right choice, and to warn his possible enemies that he is watching them and is ready to compete. By his address, Kennedy elevated the society and united it for the ongoing years of his presidency. Besides, he shown himself first of all as the American citizen, and then as a president, which created a new tendency in the presidents’ behavior pattern.