When it comes to orating, historians agree—Jack had skills. Here are eight of the greatest examples of President Kennedy's ability to speak directly to the American people—and the world—about a few of the monumental issues of his time in the Oval Office, from Civil Rights and space exploration to nuclear warfare and "the threat of Communism."
The New Frontier
Acceptance address at Democratic National Convention, July 15, 1960. This would become known as “The New Frontier” speech, because Kennedy used it to lay out his campaign theme of lifting America to a higher standard in every way. He also included a few low blows against his GOP opponent, suggesting that if he were elected, future historians might conclude “that Richard Nixon did not measure to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1961. The signature line in this speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” is the one that first comes to mind when we think of President Kennedy.
To the Moon
Address to Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961. The previous month, the Soviet Union had managed to put an astronaut into space ahead of the U.S. Instead of merely catching up, Kennedy announced his intention to surpass the Soviets by landing a manned mission on the Moon by the end of the decade. It was an endeavor comparable in scope to the Panama Canal and the Manhattan Project, but the nation managed to achieve it.
The Weapons of War
Address to the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 25, 1961. Kennedy eulogized UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, who had died in a plane crash, and offered a set of sweeping proposals by which the UN could make the world a better place. Kennedy proposed total disarmament and the eventual abolition of national armies, a massive effort to develop the economies of poor nations, a system of communications satellites to broadcast live TV around the globe, and even a global effort to control weather. His signature line: “The weapons of war must be abolished, before they abolish us.”
Cuban Missile Crisis
Televised address to the nation on Cuba crisis, Oct. 22, 1962. Kennedy took to the airwaves to inform the nation that surveillance aircraft had discovered “unmistakable evidence” of Soviet missile sites being built inside communist Cuba. He warned that “each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States.” Kennedy announced that he was imposing a naval blockade against the island.
Televised address to the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963. After Alabama Gov. George Wallace refused to allow two black students to enter the University of Alabama, Kennedy was forced to order the National Guard to integrate the school. Instead of trying to avoid further conflict with volatile segregationists, Kennedy—as he usually did—doubled down, and called for Congress to pass civil rights legislation, which he framed as a question of fidelity to principles “as ol as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”
"Ich bin ein Berliner"
Speech in West Berlin, June 26, 1963. After inspecting the Berlin Wall, the Soviet-backed communist regime’s barrier intended to keep East Germans from escaping to the democratic portion of the city, Kennedy gave a speech at Rudolph Wilde Platz, in which he described the contrast between Soviet-style authoritarian communism and a free society, and expressed his hope for the reunification of Germany. Kennedy uttered one of his most memorable lines, "Ich bin ein Berliner”—the German words for “I am a Berliner.”
Ban on Nuclear Testing
Televised address on nuclear test ban treaty, July 26, 1963. From the Oval Office, Kennedy assured the American people why the limited U.S.-Soviet treaty to ban on nuclear testing, which diplomats had finished negotiating the day before, wouldn’t weaken U.S. national security. Instead, Kennedy told the public that it was an important first step in reducing global tensions. “Yesterday, a shaft of light cut into the darkness” between the two superpowers, he said.