There is good reason why so many Americans remember our 35th president, John F. Kennedy, so fondly.
Throughout his life, as a young man in college, war hero, U.S. representative, senator, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and president, Kennedy fully embraced the American spirit and called on us to do the same.
It’s fitting that his first words to the nation, in his inaugural address as president, were “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Today, on the 50th anniversary of his untimely death, let’s reflect on all he did.
In 1940, the year young Kennedy graduated from college, the world was in the throes of World War II. He could have done anything, but he wanted nothing more than to fight for his country, ultimately earning the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for acts of heroism and, owing to related injuries, the Purple Heart.
As a U.S. senator he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Profiles in Courage, that celebrated the service of eight U.S. senators — one of them, a personal hero of mine, former U.S. senator Sam Houston.
One particularly inspiring passage from the book reads, “In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience — the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men — each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient — they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.”
Without a doubt, Kennedy supplied his own courage.
When he came to office in 1961, the reality of the Cold War was just coming into focus as Communist threats from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba loomed large.
He put the world on notice the moment he took office that, as president, he would never sacrifice our freedoms.
In his inaugural address he said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
He also recognized that a strong will alone would not protect America — a strong economy was needed as well. “America’s rise to world leadership in the century since the Civil War has reflected more than anything else our unprecedented economic growth,” he told the Economic Club of New York in 1962, in a speech that made the case for aggressive tax cuts which he later achieved.
“For on the strength of our free economy rests the hope of all free nations. We shall not fail that hope — for free men and free nations must prosper and they must prevail,” he said.
Although the country was war fatigued from WWII and Korea, President Kennedy recognized the menacing threat of Communism and refused to accommodate the Soviets.
He took a momentous stand for freedom on the world stage, traveling to Germany to visit the newly constructed Berlin Wall. There, he declared solidarity with the German people saying, “Ich bin ein Berliner” — “I am a Berliner.”
That wall did not come down until another American president went to Berlin and, echoing JFK’s clarity and purpose, challenged the Soviets to “tear down this wall.”
In that speech, President Reagan said, “When President Kennedy spoke at the City Hall those 24 years ago, freedom was encircled, Berlin was under siege. And today, despite all the pressures upon this city, Berlin stands secure in its liberty. And freedom itself is transforming the globe.”
Winning the Cold War may have been Ronald Reagan’s crowning achievement, but John Kennedy laid the foundation for the victory.
President Kennedy innately understood the importance of maintaining our status as world leader, an understanding perhaps best expressed in his advocacy for a national space program.
He went to Congress in 1961 to ask members to support a five-year program to “achieve the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”