The Inaugural Address Of John F. Kennedy

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The 1960s were considered to be one of the most violent generations in American history, which evoked depressing memories of the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights Protests. Furthermore, people during that time period witnessed the assassinations of U.S. President John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the moon landing. However, on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural speech not only to the citizens of the United States but to the entire world. In his address, Kennedy exercised the rhetorical appeals ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos to justify his call to action which was for the American people to unite with the rest of humanity to ensure human rights, freedom, peace, and stability for the world.

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ceremony was considered to be a defining moment in U.S. history. For his inaugural address, Kennedy made sure his message to the nation was short and clear but still utilized all 4 rhetorical appeals to establish what his vision was for the United States. He talked about how “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.” (Norton Custom Library) Kennedy explained that his goal for our nation was to achieve global unity, which meant supporting freedom and human rights for all humankind. He suggested that “we [should] observe [this day] not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” (Norton Custom Library) Yet, he continued to remind his audience that “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 the hand of God.” (Norton Custom Library) Kennedy didn’t want the nation to forget that “we [were] the heirs of that first revolution.” He used the metaphor of “[letting] 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…” to describe the people's responsibilities for the future welfare of our country. (Norton Custom Library) Kennedy pledged his “loyalty [to his] faithful friends” and said that if we were “united, [we wouldn’t be able to] do [anything] [for we would be] in a host of cooperative ventures.” However, if we were “divided, [there would be little to no things to] do--for we [would not dare] meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” (Norton Custom Library) In addition, Kennedy juxtaposed “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 to highlight that without peace, our world would fall into the depths of self-destruction. (Norton Custom Library) Throughout his speech, he conveyed a promising tone and his optimistic mood was so contagious to the audience that he was able to convince them that he was capable to be president of the U.S. Kennedy encouraged his audience to come together and work hard to make the world a better place to live in.

Before going in-depth and highlighting certain areas that correlate to how Kennedy used rhetoric appeal in his speech, it was essential to understand exactly is the purpose of an inaugural address. The inaugural address is a speech given after a president has been elected where he informs the future generation of Americans about his intentions for the nation during their presidency. In Kennedy’s speech, he informed the people of his intentions as a leader which involved achieving peace and freedom by unifying the citizens of the U.S. and the rest of the world together. In the 1960s, the citizens of the U.S. were going through the Cold War which was a state of political tension and military rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union. When it came to NASA trying to build rockets that could fly a man to the moon or constructing nuclear war missiles such as the Atomic Bomb, the Soviets were always two steps ahead of the Americans. However, when Kennedy was sworn to be President of the U.S, many Americans became more hopeful that with him in charge, he could make the 1960s a more peaceful and unified decade. It’s important to understand “that when a new president is inaugurated, [they have to] give an amazing inaugural address [that could] earn the trust of the entire half nation that did not vote for him.” (Torgeson) For President Kennedy, he did an exceptional job of gaining every citizen’s trust by appealing to kairos. He was able to deliver his message to the world in the most appropriate manner before the Cold War and was able to unify the entire human race.

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At the beginning of his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy immediately established his ethos by listing the members of both houses of Congress: “Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow citizens.” (Norton Custom Library) Kennedy asked his audience to not look at this day as the day where John F. Kennedy was victorious and elected as the 35th president of the U.S, but to recognize this moment “as a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning – signifying renewal, as well as change.” (Norton Custom Library) Here, Kennedy established himself as a president who valued unity over partisanship. Throughout his speech, he made a strong appeal not only to his ethics but for our ethics as a country united through common values to convince the nation that he was a valiant leader who valued all citizens’ freedom of speech. For instance, Kennedy stated that “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.” In other words, Kennedy never “[shrank] from [his] responsibility [of being president] – [he] welcome[d] it.” (Norton Custom Library) Kennedy encouraged the United States to have faith in him because he had the confidence and skill set to lead the nation through the difficult times that lay ahead. At the end of his speech, he validated his ethos as an unselfish leader again by concluding “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” (Norton Custom Library) John F. Kennedy used his ethical appeal by explaining his goal in his inaugural address which was to inspire his audience that we can achieve peace and freedom with him in charge. In addition, Kennedy reveals the truth that it’s not just the people of the U.S. that deserve the justice of freedom, the citizens of other insignificant countries such as Cuba.

Not only did John F. Kennedy use ethos to earn the nation’s trust, but he also established pathos to help the U.S. citizens understand that he shared the same values that they do. Throughout his speech, he addressed different social groups during his repetition of “to those.” First, Kennedy appeals to American patriotism which helped him become a successful president leading the nation to success at the end of the Cold War. He refreshed his audience’s memory of the nation’s founding fathers and used parallelism between “the first revolution” to our current generation and how we were “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.” (Norton Custom Library) Here, Kennedy does an exceptional job of mentioning America’s value of liberty in his speech to praise the nation’s dedication to keeping that value alive.

In addition, Kennedy challenged the American people by asking for their help and support in creating a safer world. He did this by appealing to the emotions of those who lost loved ones in WWII, but then immediately inspired the country to act when he said, “The graces of young Americans who answered the call of service surround the globe.” (Norton Custom Library) Another social group that he brought up in his speech was the people suffering from poverty. Kennedy appealed to their emotions when he stated, “to those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves..” and that “if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” (Norton Custom Library) Despite all the societal issues occurring during that time period, Kennedy remained confident in upholding his position as president by stating “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.” (Norton Custom Library) In his inaugural address, it’s easy for Kennedy to appeal to the majority of the nation’s emotions because everyone in America during that generation shared similar values and beliefs that correlated to certain societal issues, i.e. The Cold War. He referred to the idea of developing peace among other nations which caused a huge turn-on for his audience. At the same time, Kennedy created an optimistic vibe that was so contagious that every citizen in the nation believed that America was going to face a better future with him as president.

Throughout his inaugural address, Kennedy employed an appeal to different classifications during the 1960s and discussed his plans for dealing with each of them-- “old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share[d],” “new States whom we welcome[d] to the ranks of the free,” “people in the huts and villages across the globe [who struggled] to break the bonds of mass misery,” “that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations,” and “nations who [made] themselves our adversary” (214, 215) First, Kennedy applied an analogy by explaining how the spread of Communism from the Soviet Union to less developed countries like Cuba was considered a reminder to “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” (Norton Custom Library) In other words, the spread of Communism was considered to be useless to those who adopted its principles. Throughout his speech, Kennedy continued to support his future intentions for the world with the facts of the Cold War to negotiate peace and unity between America and the Soviet Union. He did this by stating “let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us. Let 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 nations.” (Norton Custom Library) In his augural address, John F. Kennedy appealed to real-world facts and figures that occurred during the 1960s to specify what his main goal was for the future generation of Americans: to unify the entire human race. During his inaugural ceremony, John F. Kennedy was calling all Americans to action and be the ones to make a difference. He wanted the people during that generation to be the first to revolt against tyranny, poverty, and war and bring back the basic human rights to all human beings.

Through these various techniques, John F. Kennedy was able to challenge our nation to come together and unite with our rival nations. As a rhetor, Kennedy understood that his inaugural speech was far more effective because he knew who his audience was: all countries around the world including ours. Ultimately, Kennedy utilized all four rhetorical appeals to gain admiration from his audience and leave them with the responsibility to carry out his idealistic concepts for the world. Unfortunately on November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but his famous last words from his speech “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” remained inspirational. Even in death, Kennedy’s future intentions for the next generation of America live on, and those who would listen to his speech again would regain a sense of hope in unifying the nation.          

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