Detail from the cover of Let Every Nation Know.
John F. Kennedy had one of the briefest presidencies in American history. And yet, it is one of the most chronicled and, for millions of Americans, one of the most remembered of their lifetime.
His thousand days in office were filled with crises at home and abroad. Some of those crises resonate today, in an age when we are reminded of how vulnerable we are to unimaginable catastrophe. John Kennedy was president at a time when the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse. Berlin and Cuba were the hair triggers that so nearly brought the United States and the Soviet Union to all-out war.
All the while, the Kennedy White House was confronted with an uprising in the South as African Americans took to the streets to demand that Washington live up to its rhetoric about the importance of freedom and liberty.
Some of the issues John Kennedy faced will sound familiar to readers in the twenty-first century. The most famous fiasco of the Kennedy administration — the failed invasion of Cuba — was born of faulty intelligence. The president, though once a journalist himself, saw fit to ask newspaper publishers to censor themselves in the interests of national security. And power in Congress was wielded by Southern white males (Democrats then; Republicans now).
John Kennedy's words, delivered more than four decades ago, read and sound as fresh as the nightly news, with one major difference: John Kennedy did not speak in sound bites. The phrase had not yet been invented. He spoke in literate paragraphs, and his speeches were filled with references to history and literature that have all but disappeared from American political discourse.
So to the question: Why a book about Kennedy speeches? There is only one answer. The words he used to inspire a nation are as relevant today as they were at the time.
That certainly seems curious. After all, Kennedy's term was brief and his legislative accomplishments were minimal at best. All his principal initiatives — an $11 billion tax cut, federal aid to elementary, secondary, and higher education, health insurance for the elderly and the indigent, a civil rights bill banning segregation in places of public accommodation, and departments of housing and urban development and transportation — were pending in Congress when he died on November 22, 1963.
In foreign affairs as well, there were major shortcomings: the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961; secret assassination plots against Fidel Castro, the imperfect performance at the Vienna Summit conference in June with Nikita Khrushchev; and the expanded U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War that opened the way to a coup d'etat against Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 that killed the Vietnamese president; and the escalation of the fighting under Lyndon Johnson that lead to 58,000 American deaths.
Despite these limitations, John Kennedy is seen by most Americans as one of the four or five great presidents in U.S. history. Opinion surveys over the last forty years consistently include JFK in the front rank of presidents with Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and, most recently, Ronald Reagan. True, Kennedy rescued the world from a nuclear war by using diplomacy to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis peacefully. He also negotiated a limited nuclear test ban treaty that inhibited the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, his overall record hardly compares with those of even near-great chief executives like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman, to mention just three twentieth-century presidents.
What then accounts for Kennedy's exceptional standing among the forty-two men who have held the highest office? His assassination is certainly one element of the public's regard for him. But it is hardly a full explanation. Forty years after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, in his fifth year in office, not many people considered him a great or outstanding president. At best, he had joined the group of nameless, faceless characters who had occupied the office in the last third of the 19th century.
Kennedy's youth and charisma go far to explain his enduring hold on Americans and, indeed, people around the world. His youthful good looks, charm, wit, and intelligence, which were so evident at his innovative live televised news conferences, are frozen in our memories. He remains an exciting forty-six-year-old president who inspired hope in a better America and a more peaceful world. The premature deaths of his brother Robert and of his son, John Kennedy Jr., has undoubtedly added to the sense of enduring tragedy about him and a conviction that had he lived, we would be a less troubled nation.
JFK also commands approval as a heroic president who, despite lifelong physical maladies, including constant back pain, served courageously in World War II and performed effectively in the White House. Revelations about his response to medical problems have marked him out as a man of strong character, which has been so much in question because of widely publicized accounts of compulsive womanizing.
The principal reason for Kennedy's popularity, however, is his inspirational rhetoric. Substantive presidential accomplishments seem to have less of a sustaining hold on Americans than does memorable presidential language in public addresses. Americans know more about Washington's Farewell Address than about any specific episodes in his presidency. Dwight Eisenhower, for all his considerable achievements both before and during his presidency, is largely remembered for a single speech at the end of his eight-year term warning the country about the military-industrial complex.
With Kennedy, for example, asking Americans to put the national interest ahead of their personal interests and to do away with war before war did away with mankind were calls to sacrifice and high-minded ideals that Americans loved. (Although Woodrow Wilson's promises to end war and make the world safe for democracy, for instance, fell short of realization, his appeal to the country's better angels has assured him of a continuing place in the front rank of presidents.)
It is interesting that the only other post-World War II president to maintain high standing with a majority of Americans is Ronald Reagan. Like Kennedy, his rhetoric continues to inspire hope for a better, more prosperous, peaceful America. Almost everyone seems to recall Reagan's description of his time in office as “morning in America” and a moment when “the pride is back.”
No one should underestimate the effects of the power of language on presidential reputation. The highly popular Kennedy is remembered for several speeches and the effectiveness of his televised press conferences. The access to JFK's audio and written speeches provided by this book will once again inspire those who heard and read them over forty years ago, but it will also win new converts to the Kennedy mystique among the millions of Americans who were born since 1963.