40 years later: Reflecting on Kennedy's words

Posted: Friday, November 21, 2003

John Fitzgerald Kennedy 35th president of the United States (Jan. 20, 1961 to Nov. 22, 1963)

Anyone alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated likely has spent at least part of this month reflecting on the event and what it has meant in terms of the nation's history. Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the day the president was shot as his motorcade wound through Dallas.

Nearly every American must surely be familiar with and inspired by those memorable lines from JFK's inaugural address, delivered Jan. 20, 1961: "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country."

The remarks he prepared for delivery Nov. 22, 1963, at the Trade Mart in Dallas may be less well known, but they continue to carry a relevant message for today. The following are excerpts from that prepared text:

On education and economic development: "... (L)eadership and learning are indispensable to each other. The advancement of learning depends on community leadership for financial and political support and the products of that learning, in turn, are essential to the leadership's hopes for continued progress and prosperity. It is not a coincidence that those communities possessing the best in research and graduate facilities from MIT to Cal Tech tend to attract the new and growing industries. ...

"This link between leadership and learning is not only essential at the community level. It is even more indispensable in world affairs. Ignorance and misinformation can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country's security. In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America's leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem."

On dissident voices: "There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable. ...

"We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will 'talk sense to the American people.' But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense."

National strength and security: "I want to discuss with you today the status of our strength and our security because this question clearly calls for the most responsible qualities of leadership and the most enlightened products of scholarship. For this nation's strength and security are not easily or cheaply obtained, nor are they quickly and simply explained. There are many kinds of strength and no one kind will suffice.

"Overwhelming nuclear strength cannot stop a guerrilla war. Formal pacts of alliance cannot stop internal subversion. Displays of material wealth cannot stop the disillusionment of diplomats subjected to discrimination.

"Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help. ...

"(I)n today's world, freedom can be lost without a shot being fired, by ballots as well as bullets. The success of our leadership is dependent upon respect for our mission in the world as well as our missiles on a clearer recognition of the virtues of freedom as well as the evils of tyranny.

"... (I)t should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only an America which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice will be respected by those whose choice affects our future. Only an America which has fully educated its citizens is fully capable of tackling the complex problems and perceiving the hidden dangers of the world in which we live. And only an America which is growing and prospering economically can sustain the worldwide defenses of freedom, while demonstrating to all concerned the opportunities of our system and society. ...

"Our adversaries have not abandoned their ambitions, our dangers have not diminished, our vigilance cannot be relaxed. But now we have the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom.

"That strength will never be used in pursuit of aggressive ambitions it will always be used in pursuit of peace. It will never be used to promote provocations it will always be used to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes.

"We in this country, in this generation, are by destiny rather than choice the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, good will toward men.' That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. ..."



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