Re: Student Query: Reactions to Kennedy's Inaugural Speech

S. Graw (
Mon, 29 Jan 1996 10:15:29 -0500

Dear Cara L. Simpkins: In response to your question about JFK's inaugural
I was 14 years old at the time. I had worked as a volunteer
campaign worker for the K campaign the previous autumn. Some of that effort
was the result of my trying to escape the boredom of school - I'd just
started high school in a suburb of Los Angeles. The Demo convention at the
LA Sports Arena also made me think about politics, but I remember I already
hated Nixon - my parents were labor acitivists and political lefties!
People were depressed and uncertain at the time, not too different
from the election situation in 1992. Not as angry or cynical as they are
this year. The sentiment was that great solutions were possible. The late
'50s had cyclical economic recessions, the Soviets seemed to be bettering us
in space and in war-heads (JFK may have gotten his razor thin victory margin
by using the 'missile gap' issue, later revealed to be all hype). But I
think above all John Kennedy meant youth and change to people at the time!
Eisenhower and his cohort seemed so old (Ike had a heart attack in office,
State Secretary Dulles kicked the bucket on the job, and Nixon, while not
much older than Kennedy, always looked like the fogeys he hung out with).
And there was Jackie, so beautiful & cosmopolitan - the K's symbolized what
people wanted to be like, and they promised a nation that people wanted to
have, a society that was still coming out of the haze of the repressive
anti-communist and Korean war times. People knew that the US did what it
wanted to against the Axis powers, but that effort and its leaders were now
a generation old, and the youth that actually fought the war were in place
to pick up the ball and run for America's touchdown against all opposition
in the world!
So the inaugural speech eloquently gave people what they wanted to
hear and followed up on what JFK had promised in the campaign. Sacrifice
("Share any burden"), service ("ask.....what you can do for your country"),
and the goal of winning the Cold War and keeping the US #1 in the world. I
was impressed, actually fulfilled, since I believed it all along, having
worked for it. Today I can and do say that a great deal of it was delusory
( but not hype in the sense that there were real programs to back it up, and
it did mostly swell from popularly originated sentiment, not top-down 'this
is the way it is, I told ya so' thinking), but that's not unusual - our
politics is one of promises, not truths.
What did it mean to me: by the time I finished high school I had my
sights set on a career as a government scientist. I was going to study
weather prediction, meteorology, and I passed the US govt. Civil Service
exam two years later and became a summer intern at the Weather Bureau in
Washington DC. Although Eisenhower had initiated the summer program, JFK
greatly expanded it to where 30,000 students were employed each summer by
1965, mostly college kids but inner city, minority youth in DC as well. The
govt. organized weekly presentations for many of us: I saw JFK live (the
only time) on the W House lawn in 9-63, met Robt FK and LbJohnson several
times between '63 and '67, & many other big pols at the time at such
events. The promise of the 1-61 speech came true for me. I went to UCLA
helped by scholarships and loans from the fed govt.
But the times were not all cotton candy: people were really really
frightened by the missile crisis a year after that speech; the
Administration's policies were largely an extension of the New Deal of FDR
(that's where the idea of letter abbreviations like JFK came from) and there
were lots of people who totally hated the New Deal, e.g. Oliver Stone's
father (!). I think that the inaugural speech was great, just great for
JFK's believers, but for many it was just more hot air. K had won the
election by less than 1 vote in every precinct nationwide (a statistic, not
a real count of course!) and the speech was so eloquent that it swayed a lot
more people to his side. K had great speech writers - intellectuals like
Arthur Schlessinger, who probably ghosted "Profiles in Courage," the book
that cultivated JFK's appeal to intellectuals and students - you should look
it over if you want to get an idea of what the inaugural speech was based
on. That sort of input also stemmed from the New Deal when the "dollar a
year men" of corporations and universities threw themselves into the project
of saving the US economy and keeping the people from really turning radical!
So there - there's some dreams and some analysis. I wound up
dropping out of the govt and a PhD program to flee to Europe in opposition
to the Vietnam War in 1968. I've never really come back, though I'm now at
a fancy US university working on what goes on in Vietnam and other poor 3rd
World countries. The violent end of the Camelot dream is a historical
tragedy, but its cause is to be found in the illusions so eloquently
expressed on that cold winter afternoon in 1961. Read the first half (or
the whole thing if you want to be good!) of Halberstam's "Best and the
Brightest" to understand what I mean. I wish you well in school.
Steve Graw
* From: Steve Graw
* at Cornell U./Field of Development Sociology
* Warren 34/ (607) 255-7684
* Old hippies never die, they just trip out *