A Rhetorical Analysis of John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

Lyrical, profound, eloquent, and chiastic, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech given on January 20, 1961, is a testament to the rhetorical power of language. Kennedy’s 11-minute address, considered one of the greatest Presidential speeches in history, transformed the political and cultural landscape of America and countries overseas. After a long process of editing, tweaking, and refining, the final speech resulted in a seamless combination of thought and language, expressing the direction in which Kennedy wished to lead the country. In his speech, Kennedy employs various rhetorical strategies to mold the opinions and attitudes of Americans and of the international audience. More specifically, Kennedy’s speech attempts to unite, energize, and rally the American people and initiate international cooperation by appealing to his audience’s values and ideals. To build my argument, I will first discuss the context in which the speech was given and then proceed to explain how the rhetoric works for Kennedy.

President Kennedy’s election was unique in several ways. Not only did he win the race with the narrowest margin in history, but he was also the first Catholic and youngest to be elected. Interestingly, the times themselves were as unique as Kennedy’s election. The cold war was at high noon as the Soviet Union and America raced to build their atomic arsenal. More importantly, the Soviet Union was looking to station atomic weapons in Cuba, which was soon to escalate into the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, the civil rights movement was in full swing, as African Americans sought equal ground. With potential for both promise and terror, the 60s were a volatile time in American History. Kennedy, well aware of this fact, knew that his inaugural address must deal with these issues as well as meet the expectations common to inaugural addresses. Kennedy’s speech had four main goals: unify and rally the citizens of America; reaffirm the communal values of the nation; convey his domestic and international political agendas; and present the requirements and limitations of his presidency. These goals, painted throughout his speech, combine to form a conceptual canvas of Kennedy’s vision.

To understand how Kennedy responds to and interacts with the social and political forces of his time, we must now analyze the speech itself. To facilitate logical argumentation, I will structure my argument around the organization of President Kennedy’s speech, which is divided into five sections: the opening; his address to the world; the Soviet address; his conception of the world; and the conclusion.

Kennedy begins his address defining the occasion as a “celebration of freedom” as opposed to a “victory of party.” Right from the start, Kennedy wishes to unite the nation and dissolve the partisanship that existed prior to his election. He continues to connect with his audience, specifically American citizens, by delving into the communal values shared by the nation when he states, “we dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution.” This statement not only stirs patriotic emotions, but it also continues the theme of historical significance found in the opening. In the second sentence, Kennedy reminds the people that he just swore “the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.” Also in the opening, Kennedy fearlessly recognizes “Almighty God” as the “hand” from which the “rights of man come.” Being the first Catholic President, this may have been expected; however, such references to religion in government were mostly held to the nation’s revolutionary days. Further appealing to the ideals shared by American citizens, Kennedy reaffirms the pride and “heritage” of the nation when he alliteratively states, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden… to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Building on the beliefs that surround the American concept of freedom, Kennedy effectively rallies the people to support any endeavor the country may pursue to ensure their rights as citizens.

Kennedy’s second section of the speech consists of a series of parallelisms directed to the communities of the world. This section expresses one of the over-arching themes of Kennedy’s administration: to help other nations help themselves. While conveying his goals, Kennedy displays his mastery of rhetorical language with juxtapositions, metaphors, and ethical appeals. Kennedy’s abundant use of pitting two opposing ideas directly against each other, works well in this instance. “United” with “divided,” “poor” with “rich,” and “instruments of war” with “instruments of peace,” are examples of Kennedy’s antithetical rhetoric. This technique, while adding rhythm and cadence, highlights and strengthens the differences between our current state and Kennedy’s ideal conception of foreign affairs. To bolster his argument and add to the speech’s power, Kennedy also employs the use of strong metaphors in this section. In a warning to Alaska and Hawaii, who have the ability to abuse their new power, Kennedy states, “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Kennedy once again uses metaphor to rouse the crowd in a crescendo of intensity when describing his policy on this side of the world: “And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.” Between the threads of antithesis and metaphor, Kennedy weaves a value-based argument. He contends that we should help other nations help themselves, “not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.” Here, in another appeal to the communal values of the nation, Kennedy associates his foreign policy with the ethical beliefs of the American people. Implicitly, Kennedy makes references to his future political endeavors such as the “New Frontier Program” and, more specifically, the “Peace Corps.” Having addressed the country’s allies, Kennedy transitions to a more pressing while equally important matter: our relationship with the Soviet Union.

Understanding that the world was on the verge of self-destruction, Kennedy devotes almost one-fourth of his speech towards international cooperation with the Soviet Union. Ironically, just days before Kennedy’s speech, President Eisenhower told the American citizens that the world was in a stable state. However, Kennedy saw the world very differently, as a time of “maximum danger.” Redefining the times in his speech, Kennedy cautiously refers to the Soviets as our “adversary” rather than “enemy.” In addition, he makes the Soviets “not a pledge but a request” in his efforts to seek peaceful cooperation. This sensitivity to language is evidence of Kennedy’s desire to avoid unwarranted hate or misunderstanding from the Soviet audience. Kennedy’s precise word-choice enables his audience to see the world through Kennedy’s eyes exactly as he intends. The manner in which Kennedy speaks, as neither nation can take “comfort” and is “overburdened” by the struggle, evokes sympathy and urgency in the American citizens. Within this section, Kennedy once again utilizes a series of parallelisms, each promoting cooperation with the Soviets. Here, Kennedy continues his use of juxtaposition (“unite” with “divide” and “strong” with “weak”) and metaphor (“beachhead of cooperation” and “jungle of suspicion”) to add to the lyrical and figurative aspects of the speech. Moreover, Kennedy returns to his religious ties when he quotes Isaiah, “undo the heavy burdens… (and) let the oppressed go free.” Repeatedly using these techniques creates consistent feel and rhetorical structure. This section ends with Kennedy expressing the limitations of his Presidency as he states:

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

Here, Kennedy attempts to create energy and hope on both sides of the fence, while laying a sense of responsibility on the people to begin a new era of international cooperation.

The fourth part of Kennedy’s speech shares his conception of the world and plan of action. To do so, Kennedy eloquently brings all elements of the speech, thus far, full-circle. Returning to the communal values and history of the nation, Kennedy places the country’s future in the people’s hands while reminding them “of the graves of young Americans who answered the call to service around the globe.” Further emphasizing solidarity, Kennedy unites the people of the world once again when he declares war, “against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” He then proceeds to rally the people by inviting them to “join the historic effort.” Kennedy, willing to sacrifice himself for the nation even as President, powerfully states, “I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.” Appealing to the ideal that one should do what is right for one’s country, Kennedy speaks directly to the hearts of Americans. In addition, Kennedy reinforces the pride of the people when he states, “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”

At this point in the speech, the beginning of the conclusion, Kennedy challenges Americans: “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Similarly, he challenges the citizens of the world: “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” The reversal of word order in two parallel phrases, known as chiasmus, is Kennedy’s rhetorical trademark. These statements work not just because they are memorable and powerful, but because they are entrenched in the communal belief that duty to one’s country and the freedom of man are virtuous ideals. Much like he begins his speech, Kennedy ends his address with additional references to history and religion:

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.

With eloquence and grace, Kennedy’s concluding sentence reminds his audience of the historical significance of their future endeavors and simultaneously spurs them into action.

President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural aimed to unite, awaken, and rally the American people amid the socially and politically complex times. The speech also served to inform the world of America’s position on foreign affairs, most importantly our relationship with the Soviet Union. The speech achieves these goals and more through effective rhetorical devices such as ethical appeals, metaphor, and juxtaposition. Furthermore, Kennedy’s acute word-choice and clever language add to the overall beauty of the speech. In essence, Kennedy’s inaugural address, combining style, organization, and persuasive rhetoric, successfully energized the nation and set the tone for his administration.